Every year, on the third Monday of January, America pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His widow, Coretta Scott King, along with many civil rights leaders, public figures and everyday people campaigned against the odds—and many resistant politicians—to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. I remember well the day President Ronald Reagan finally signed the bill that established the holiday. Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday,” composed to draw attention to the campaign more than three decades ago, evokes pleasant memories from that day for me, even now. If you’re not familiar with this song, I encourage you to look it up, and pay close attention to the lyrics. They begin:
You know it doesn’t make much sense/ There ought to be a law against/ Anyone who’d take offense/ At a day made in your celebration.
As youngsters who were always happy to get a day off from school due to a snow storm (although D.C. public schools rarely had weather-related cancellations back then), Election Day or a holiday, somehow Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was different for my friends and me from the very beginning. The day carried with it an unspoken sense of responsibility. Sleeping in or playing video games or board games all day would have felt disrespectful. Besides, our parents, who had lived through the Civil Rights Movement, would never have allowed it. It was mandatory that we spend the day doing something meaningful, often related to volunteerism.
Most years this meant participating in a memorial program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C., where we would perform with a city-wide children’s choir. In high school, we would participate in essay-writing and oratory contests, responding to questions like, “Is Dr. King’s Dream Still Alive?” or “What Does Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mean to You?” or “What is the Cost of Freedom?” Some years, I would simply sit on my parents’ bed and listen to a recording of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech with them in reverence.
Today, my own household still upholds this tradition. Together we have watched documentaries and films on Dr. King’s life and the movement, attended special church services and engaged in thought-provoking discussions on this great American hero and current race relations. This year, I plan to share with my family the Library of Congress’s online exhibit, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which includes details about the important contributions Dr. King made during the Civil Rights Era. The exhibit features items from the Veterans History Project (VHP), the Civil Rights History Project and other oral history collections. As in years past, I suspect one of my children will end the day by wondering aloud how different the world might have been had Dr. King’s life not been cut short by a sniper’s bullet at the age of 39. My answer will always be the same: “We will never know.”
However, here’s one thing I do know: There are personal and societal benefits of volunteerism, no matter when you decide to volunteer. You don’t have to wait until April for National Volunteer Month. Monday is the perfect day to volunteer, and a really great day to interview a veteran for VHP. For 30 minutes or longer, you can record an interview of any U.S. veteran, covering topics that range from their reasons for joining, to what they experienced while in uniform to how that experience helped to shape them into the person they are today. You can also submit a collection of a veteran’s original photographs, letters and other correspondence to the Project. A few months after submitting the materials and the required forms from VHP’s instructional field kit, a summary of the veteran’s service will be added to VHP’s online searchable database, and your name will be listed as the interviewer/donor.
Before you get started, take some time to view a few of the other collections in the VHP archive, which now holds nearly 100,000 individual stories of service. I’m certain you will find some that interest you. The collections that seem to resonate with me the most are from those who, ironically, fought for equality and freedom abroad at a time when it was not available to them at home. Veterans who served in segregated units, like Oneida Miller Stuart and James Wiggins, help symbolize for me what Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were all about.
Tell us how you plan to make Monday a day on, not a day off in the comments below or via social media using the hashtag #LOCvets.