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

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; A03

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 http://www.serve.gov/mlkday.

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.

After losing reelection in 1994, Wofford -- who had helped establish the Peace Corps in the 1960s -- remained in Washington and continued his King Day efforts. He became chief executive of CNCS from 1995 to 2001. The corporation oversees AmeriCorps as well as the King day of service.

Wofford said that he preaches his message every King holiday: "Martin Luther King was not a man asking people to go around the campfire singing 'Kumbaya.' He would want this to be a day of all races and faiths and sectors working together, having the experience of serving alongside people of very different backgrounds."

Wofford, like Lewis, had a history with King. As an aide to John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, it was Wofford who suggested that Kennedy call Coretta Scott King when her husband was arrested for participating in a sit-in.

Wofford also supported Obama's campaign and appreciates his references to King's legacy.

Obama remembered King on Sunday at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, asking Americans "to give up time in service of others, to give something of ourselves to a cause that's greater than ourselves to honor and celebrate Dr. King."

Three years ago, Ivonne Fuller, who lives in Glenn Dale, decided to begin making King Day "a day on, not off." The first year, she collected toiletries for a homeless shelter. This year, she said, she is still looking for a place to volunteer.

"Last year, there were so many places," she said.

The Rev. Tony Lee said he has also seen enthusiasm wane, but the earthquake disaster in Haiti renewed the call for service and he said he saw a natural connection to King's legacy. His congregation, Community of Hope AME Church in Hillcrest Heights, is holding a go-go band benefit concert Monday for Haiti. "It was King who helped us to understand the brotherhood of all humanity," Lee said.

Wofford said he hopes that the news from Haiti will jolt those tempted to be complacent on King Day.

"It takes, sometimes, a shock to produce what you want," Wofford said.

He will spend the holiday in Philadelphia, where one of the biggest service-related celebrations of King's legacy is held. About 70,000 people are expected at more than 900 projects this year, said Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Wofford is scheduled to speak to those 70,000 volunteers. Then, he will join them in their efforts for as long as his 83-year-old bones can manage.

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