King service day co-founder: Holiday 'has long way to go'

Members of the historic Vermont Avenue Baptist Church talk about what it means for the president to come to their congregation and speak at the same pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke several times.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010

For a decade and half, Harris Wofford has taken what Americans do on the national holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy personally.

During his single term in the U.S. Senate, Wofford (D-Pa.) partnered with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in 1994 to pass the King Holiday and Service Act. Both men, veterans of the civil rights movement who were friends of King, were fed up and disappointed with what the holiday had become. Rather than a day of unity and service as they had envisioned, the holiday was little more than broadcasts of the "I have a dream" speech and sales at shopping malls.

Until last year.

That's when Martin Luther King Jr. Day got a boost from Barack Obama's election to the White House. The president-elect's online campaign network promoted the idea of a day of service on the holiday, which last year took place the day before the inauguration. Potential volunteers could plug in their Zip codes online and find a work site. On national television, there was Obama painting at the Sasha Bruce House Shelter, while Michelle Obama was shown stuffing care packets for troops along with 12,000 other people in RFK Stadium. More than 1 million people volunteered in 13,000 projects, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that promotes volunteerism.

"It took a quantum leap forward," Wofford said. But he doesn't sense the same energy this year. "There's still a long way to go to make it a truly all-American day," he said.

The number of volunteers was small in the earliest days of the effort. In 2008, volunteers worked on about 5,000 service projects. Nicola Goren, acting chief of the CNCS, expects 10,000 projects this year. A database is searchable online at

No one is surprised about the slippage after last year's historic moment. Although the projects have doubled from 2008, for Wofford, that's still too small.

Too many people who were touched by King's legacy still don't get it, said Wofford, 83.

"The King celebration cannot be just another American holiday," said Lewis, who is a national ambassador for the day of service. "It's a day to do something. It's not just about reflecting."

King Day is the newest U.S. holiday. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the holiday went into effect in 1986. Perhaps the most controversial federal holiday, it took years to be established.

In the early years, there was no guiding ritual for the day. Wofford and Lewis pushed for the federal government to support the idea of a national day of service. But soon, the holiday became swept up in the American marketing machine, with King Day sales and greeting cards. Organizations held parades and sold T-shirts and buttons.

Wofford and Lewis thought many observances were genuine reflections of King's legacy, but found some aspects of the holiday displays downright distasteful.

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