Change MLK Could Believe In

Fresh off a rollicking celebration in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, President-elect Barack Obama is shaping the final day of his pre-presidential life around another giant figure, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama is taking part in a community renovation project in the Washington area to honor King, the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. Monday is the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of King, who advocated peaceful resistance and equality among all races. He blazed a trail for Obama, soon to be the nation's first black president.

Up to a million people across the nation will join Obama in community renovation projects. Some will stoop to pick up garbage in parks, some will scrub school walls clean or serve cans of soup to the destitute. There are thousands such events planned to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It will be a record-breaking moment of community service just one day before Obama’s historic inauguration as the country’s 44th president.

Yesterday the president-elect hosted a welcome event at the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” more than 45-years ago.

Another echo of Dr. King is Obama’s call for Americans to give back.

Since his transition team launched a blog to connect volunteers with service projects, more than 8,626 events have been posted. That’s up from 5,000 last year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

“This has been an off-the-charts, through-the-roof response to the president-elect’s call to service on King Day,” said Sandy Scott, a CNCS spokesman. “The whole idea has been to make King Day a day on and not a day off.”

In 1994, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, won a campaign for transforming MLK Day—first established as a federal holiday by President Reagan—into a national day for service.

Since then the number of people volunteering on the third Monday of January has gone up each year.  It reached 500,000 people last year, and officials expect participation to more than double this year, especially given that teachers have encouraged more than 60 million schoolchildren with a day off from school to volunteer.

This couldn’t come at more urgent moment.

Thirty-seven million people, more than the population of California, are living below the poverty line, according to the latest Census data—this before the economy went into recession. 

On Christmas Day, the number of families in New York City shelters alone reached 9,700, a 40% spike from the previous year.

At the same time, volunteerism in America is also trending up. In 2006, it reached 27 percent, a 30-year high, according to the CNCS.

Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, a large non-profit volunteer organization, said the number of new volunteers through his organization has risen 20 percent since August and keeps on growing.

“Our projects are fuller than usual,” he said. “It is a very important message when our country’s leader says that volunteerism is important.”

Bagley said that, like many others in the non-profit community, he is hopeful the new president will follow through with his promise to increase funding for national service projects. That would really honor the slain civil rights leader’s legacy.

Dr. King once said that service made everybody great because anybody could do it.

“You don't have to have a college degree to serve,” he said. “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.”

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