Politics

Evan Horowitz

How did MLK day become a day of service?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day had already been a holiday for nearly a decade when it was reconsecrated as a “Day of Service” in 1994.

Today, many treat the holiday as a “day on,” rather than a day off, an opportunity to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy through volunteerism. That’s how the White House now chooses to mark the day: last year the First Family and Vice President Joe Biden volunteered at DC soup kitchens.

This year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to participate in “Day of Service” events across all 50 states, including at least 2400 right here in Massachusetts.

How did this “Day of Service” begin?

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The third Monday of January was set aside in 1986 to commemorate King’s birthday and his contributions to American history.

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Then in 1994, Representatives John Lewis and Harris Wofford — both veterans of the Civil Rights movement and former friends of Dr. King — introduced a bill to turn MLK day into a “day of action, not apathy.” It was a way, as Wofford put it, to “remember Martin the way he would have liked.”

The bill passed, and MLK day has been a “Day of Service” ever since.

What does it mean to be a “Day of Service”?

Partly, it’s symbolic, a reminder that people should celebrate in a way that’s meaningful to them and would have been meaningful to Dr. King.

But the MLK day of service has its official side as well. It’s overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the same agency that organizes Americorps. They provide toolkits and small grants to local groups looking to lead MLK day activities, and they help spread the word about MLK day events.

How come I’ve never heard of this?

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Judging from our discussions in the Globe newsroom, it may have something to do with age. For many young people, volunteering is what MLK day has always been about. But those of us who graduated high school before the “Day of Service” idea took hold don’t always think of MLK day in the same way.

How many events are we talking about?

Hard numbers are hard to come by, because there’s no official vetting process. Any group who wants can organize a service event for MLK day, no approval necessary.

But the Corporation for National and Community Service says there are thousands of events involving hundreds of thousands of people in every state in the US — and that the numbers have grown substantially over the years.

What’s going on here in Massachusetts?

Many of the Service Day activities in the Bay State are coordinated through the Mass Service Alliance, which is the state version of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

This year, they have provided small grants to about a dozen service projects, including building beds for kids who are transitioning out of shelters, helping people in Haverhill learn about health and wellness resources, and preparing meals for low-income students on Cape Cod.

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All told, Mass Service Alliance expects that these projects will draw roughly 2400 volunteers. There are opportunities to volunteer all over Massachusetts and in cities and town across the country.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz