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What You Should Know About Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service
The history behind MLK Day, and how you can celebrate it.
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Updated: January 2023

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”



(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking before the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968.)

Who was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his leadership during the American civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s (a wave of activism contesting racial segregation, discrimination, disinfranchisement, and injustice). From 1955 to 1968, Dr. King lead several efforts to eliminate Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic racism that hindered the mobility of people of color in the US. From sit-ins to marches, Dr. King championed demonstrations that combined nonviolence with direct action.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington is one of his most celebrated. In it, Dr. King envisioned a world with equal justice for all people under the law. He went on to earn a Nobel Peace Prize and see the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Towards the end of his life, Dr. King’s advocacy emphasized the importance of economic justice in the fight for equality and racial liberation. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, where he was supporting Memphis sanitation workers in their strike for union recognition, better safety standards, and liveable wages.

How did MLK Day become a holiday?

Today, Dr. King’s contributions are pretty undeniable. We’re taught about Dr. King and the civil rights movement in school, and celebrating his legacy on MLK Day feels only natural. But this wasn’t always the case.

The creation of MLK Day was a hard-fought battle between Dr. King’s supporters and those who felt threatened by his advocacy. Calls for the holiday began shortly after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, but it wasn’t until 1983 that Congress passed legislation making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. This was thanks in large part to the work of Coretta Scott King and the King Center and Rep. John Coyers and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Then came the battle for MLK Day to be recognized at the state level, which included a stand-off between the NFL and the state of Arizona over their refusal to adopt the holiday. Southern states showed the most resistance, and some even tried combining MLK Day with celebrations for Confederate leaders. In 2000, all 50 states officially adopted MLK Day -- 32 years after it was first proposed.

Why does it matter?

MLK Day matters because it recognizes Dr. King’s legacy of service while inspiring us to serve in our own ways. A lot of the things Dr. King advocated for during his lifetime (racial justice, economic equality, affordable housing, labor rights, etc.) are issues we’re still trying to figure today. The protests of this past summer, for example, followed in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and leaders like Dr. King. The fight for justice is ongoing, and we can use this day to reflect on the work that Dr. King started and take responsibility for the work we still have left to do.

The National Constitution Center sums it up pretty well with the following quote:

“Today, the King holiday serves multiple purposes: It honors the total legacy of King; focuses on the issue of civil rights; highlights the use of nonviolence to promote change; and calls people into public service.”

How can I celebrate MLK Day?

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, and Americans are encouraged to spend this day volunteering to improve their communities.

Here are some ways you can participate:

1. Learn about and discuss Dr. King’s life and teachings. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Reserach and Education Institute is a great place to get started.

2. Join the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team® and complete a volunteer action through DoSomething’s Strength Through Service. When it comes to making a difference, we're all on the same page. Show up for your community through volunteerism and advocacy, and earn volunteer credits (and a signed certificate!) to fulfill volunteer or service learning requirements for school, as well as be considered for a $2,000 scholarship! Giving back is the key to building connecting, sustainable, and healthy communities. Not only is giving back good for our society, but it is also good for our souls! In fact, research shows that volunteering is beneficial to both our physical and mental health.

Strength Through Service opportunities include:

3. Lead your own service project. These resources from Youth Service America will help you plan and organize a project that’s meaningful to you.

4. Educate yourself on systemic barriers to mobility. Read about the racial wealth and income gap in the US and the 12 key federal policies that have contributed to it.

5. Combat discrimination in lending (redlining). With this guide from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, tell your reps to strengthen laws that protect low-income communities -- not weaken them.

6. Protect existing civil rights. Consider donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help them defend and promote voting rights, educational equality, economic justice, and more.

GET INVOLVED

Make a difference in your community and add your vision to the future of our democracy