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Marsha Mercer column: A 'day on, not a day off’ for MLK
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National Day of Service

Marsha Mercer column: A 'day on, not a day off’ for MLK

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MLK Memorial Washington monument

The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. blends celebration, reflection and action.

On the third Monday in January, typically there are parades, prayer breakfasts, church services, concerts, readings from the writings of the slain civil rights leader and, yes, sales. Shopping, though, is far less a focus than on other federal holidays.

The King holiday is our national day of service, when Americans are encouraged to volunteer to make their communities better.

King would have turned 93 on Jan. 15. He received the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was only 39 when he was tragically killed by a sniper in 1968.

Time dims memories, so it’s worth remembering the holiday honoring him was hard won. Black members of Congress had to fight for 15 years to get the holiday through Congress.

Former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina once filibustered the bill with 300 pages of documents accusing King of being a Marxist with communist leanings. Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York declared the papers “filth.”

Congress finally passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the King holiday in 1983, with the first observance in 1986. But some states resisted. Arizona did not recognize the holiday until 1992 and New Hampshire in 1999.

Until last year, Virginia still honored Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a state holiday on the Friday before the King holiday.

Shortly after the first MLK federal holiday, The New York Times published a letter from a Princeton University sociology professor.

“I propose we declare the holiday a ‘day on,’ rather than a ‘day off,’ ” Marion J. Levy Jr. wrote. His idea was that everyone would work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their wages to a special MLK fund benefiting education, housing and other projects.

Persuading millions of Americans to work on a holiday and donate their pay was a bridge too far, but the idea of service caught on.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, officially designating the holiday as a day of national service.

Overshadowing the commemorations this year is the political battle over voting rights legislation.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to King and met with his family Tuesday in Atlanta before the president delivered a fiery speech evoking King’s memory to press for passage of voting rights legislation.

Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue but, like most things, it has become fiercely politicized. Partisans can’t even agree on facts.

Biden and many Democrats contend passing the two voting rights bills before Congress is so crucial to restoring equity in the election system that the Senate should set aside the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes, if necessary.

But Republicans vociferously claim the voting rights bills are a massive power grab by Democrats, an attempt to rewrite the nation’s election laws to benefit Democratic candidates.

Biden hopes to make where legislators stand a key marker in this year’s midterm elections.

As senators wrestle with their role in history, the rest of us can find meaningful ways to observe the holiday.

You can Google local MLK service events. If wintry weather or the pandemic makes in-person volunteering problematic, the federal government has two service opportunities people can do at home.

Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are seeking volunteers to transcribe historical documents virtually. Digital volunteers are helping to make letters, field notes, diaries, manuscripts and other handwritten documents more widely available.

For example, the Smithsonian needs help transcribing records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to improve the lives of formerly enslaved men and women during Reconstruction.

The Library of Congress needs help transcribing pages from George Washington’s farm reports that chronicle the lives and labor of enslaved people at Mount Vernon as well as other aspects of 18th century farm life.

The library also has projects transcribing Walt Whitman’s letters and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture files. They may be found at: https://crowd.loc.gov and https://transcription.si.edu .

This MLK holiday is a chance to learn while we serve.

“Everybody can be great,” King said, “because anybody can serve.”

Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. Contact her at: marsha.mercer@yahoo.com

© 2022, Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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