"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" Dr. Martin Luther King
Yesterday was the 37th national observance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. There were more events and acts of service this year than during the last two years as the COVID numbers are substantially lower and more people have gotten vaccines and booster shots. So yesterday saw tons of people out in the community doing tons of things commemorating the man and his message, and living out parts of his commitment to justice, acts of kindness, and love for the human race. There were park cleanups, painting and refurbishing of buildings, feeding the homeless, fixing up houses and planting gardens, cleaning up streets, and more. Religious organizations, big and small businesses, community volunteer groups, city and town governments, schools and institutions were all involved in designing and organizing all of these works, and it was a wonderfully massive undertaking. It involved people across all types of demographic lines: age, color, wealth, language, education, etc. Millions of people nationwide were involved in simply helping other people. Of particular note this year were important activities in places where Dr. King had helped lead important demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement. These communities came together, much as many of them did during the Civil Rights Movement. Only this time they came to help deal with a more current problem. And in so doing, they illustrated the continued importance of Dr. King’s message.
Selma, Alabama was the site of two protests central to the long and often bloody struggle to extend the vote to African-Americans. On Sunday, March 7 ,1965 about 300 marchers organized by the Southern Conference Leadership Council (Dr. King's group) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gathered for a march to the state capital of Montgomery protesting the killing of a protester at a previous march and demanding voting rights. They were met at the Edmund Petts Bridge by state troopers and a local mounted police force who stormed into the marchers, beat them with batons and trampled some with horses. TV networks had discovered the Civil Rights Movement by then, and the broadcast went national, shocking many Americans. This led to the introduction of a Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and to the famous 50-mile Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. King. King had called on “people of conscience”, as he put it, to come to Selma to join in the march to the capital. Many did, including a large number of whites. National TV coverage put the march and King’s words across the airwaves, galvanizing a force for change. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was then passed in August, ending literacy tests, poll taxes, and other methods by which Blacks had been denied the right to vote. Selma had changed the nation.
This year the Selma community had originally planned a celebration of that March and the Voting Rights Act. But Thursday, January 12 saw tornadoes rip through the town, killing 7 people and doing tremendous damage to the town. And the same forces that mobilized in 1965 and came together joined with other agencies to help deliver aid to the victims of the storms. Community groups, churches, fraternal organizations and more joined together, helping shelter residents, providing food, digging out, and repairing homes and businesses, helping clothe people, and much, much more. We have had many natural and weather disasters recently, and after each one people have come together selflessly to offer immediate and direct service to others. This is truly in the spirit of Dr. King’s words above. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. This won't be resolved easily or quickly, of course; the work and the workers will be there for a long time. It will be difficult. But the forces will still be there, doing what they can to help. Service is always needed; we all have the capability to help one another.
Initially, I did not favor a nationwide “King Holiday.” I feared that we would see a parade of “Martin Luther King Day Sales,” and the country would blow right past the messages embodied by his life and by his actions. But 37 years later, the day is still seen as a Day of Service; a day to give back and to help. Never have I been so glad to have been so wrong.
Here is a link to ways we in the Philadelphia area can help support some of the groups who are doing such vital work in Alabama:
(In 2018 I wrote a post about The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and its role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Here is a link to it, should you wish to read it: