MLK’s spirit of social service lives on during national holiday

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton


Here are a few ideas of things to do to mark the King holiday:

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

The center is screening a new movie about nonviolent activism called “A Force More Powerful” at 1 p.m. Jan. 18. Earlier that day, at 11 a.m., the center will present a staging of the Alliance Theatre production “Troubling Our House: In Search of the Beautiful Stranger,” from the Palefsky Collision Project.

The center also will be in the second week of a new exhibit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, titled “King and Youth Involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement.” Only a fraction of the voluminous Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection can be displayed at any one time in the center’s intimate exhibit hall, and a different exhibit rotates through every few months.

Adults: $15; seniors, students, educators: $13; children (7-10): $10; 6 and under: free. 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., Atlanta. 678-999-8990,

Morehouse College

Morehouse, King's alma mater, plans a week of free activities, including a day of service starting at 8 a.m. Jan. 18 (contact Monty Whitney at 404-681-7575 or For more service opportunities, go to

On Jan. 22, Morehouse will hold a public conversation with two of its graduates, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. (’56) and his son, the Rev. Otis Moss III (’92), at the Bank of America Auditorium, Shirley A. Massey Executive Conference Center, 2700 E. DuPont Ave., Atlanta. The topic: “Generation to Generation: Who’s Got Next?” 404-681-7554,

U.S. Rep. John Lewis will speak at Morehouse, offering insight on his long history as an activist in civil and human rights and reflecting on the 1960s, as well as today's challenges. 6-8 p.m. Jan. 21. Free and open to the public. Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, 900 West End Ave., Atlanta. 404-681-7554,

Morehouse has its own exhibit of King papers, and is opening it to the public at 3 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Archives Research Center, Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library, 111 James P Brawley Drive, Atlanta. 404-681-7554,


Willard Lariscy will spend most of his workday Monday getting his hands dirty volunteering at the Lifecycle Building Center, a nonprofit that sells salvaged building materials at a discount.

Roughly 200 other employees of the Atlanta office of Perkins + Will will be out in the community as well, repairing homes, feeding the hungry, cleaning up historic Oakland Cemetery or working with young environmentalists.

“There’s a lot of sweat equity going out in the community,” said Lariscy, managing director of the Atlanta office of the international global architecture and design firm. “Martin Luther King (Jr.) lived in Atlanta and that provides an inspiring framework. It’s a great day to rally around someone whose life was about service.”

Indeed, 30 years after the United States started observing the civil rights leader’s birthday as a national holiday, thousands of metro Atlantans are pitching in this day to help those less fortunate.

And this year, some local nonprofits say the level of volunteerism has increased noticeably.

“There’s definitely an uptick,” said Whitney Stovall, chief visionary officer of Hello, My Name is KING, an Atlanta- and DeKalb-based organization that works with youths and men of color.

Stovall had to refer volunteers to other nonprofits after too many signed up for an event she is coordinating to work in community gardens.

She needed about 30 people and more than 60 signed up, including 50 in a week.

“I think a lot is going on in the world today, and people are watching the news coverage locally and around the world,” Stovall said.

Outcries over the use of excessive force by police. A growing refugee crisis. Nine people gunned down in a Charleston, S.C., church. Families facing days without adequate food.

“People really want to do something and not just be at home on King Day,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re making a difference. If I didn’t do anything, I’d be feeling some kinda way about myself.”


Read how Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday was a long time in the making, with starts and stops along the way.

Then in 1982 Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder went to Washington with petitions bearing more than 6 million signatures in support of a national holiday to House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

The next year, then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation proclaiming the third Monday in January as the annual federal holiday. The first official celebration took place on Jan. 20, 1986.

Since the beginning, service has been a cornerstone of the federal holiday.

Malikah Berry, senior VP of programs for Points of Light and who leads the organization's MLK Jr. Day of Service initiative, said Coretta Scott King "was adamant that this not be a day of consumerism but a day of giving back as a fitting tribute to Dr. King's legacy."

At Open Hand Atlanta, about 150 people have signed up to volunteer on the holiday. That number could grow as people show up who have not registered.

Tina Dennard, co-founder of the Adopt a Role Model Program in Macon, said volunteers will come Monday to read and teach literacy to youths and to make repairs at the center.

“In the last 10 years, I don’t let people say no, they can’t do anything,” she said. “If Dr. King could leave his four little children and go out in the world to try to make a difference, we can too. You gotta get out there. We have to make a difference.”

One of the volunteers will be Robert Styles. He will come dressed as UBIE, the anti-bully superhero, who will talk with youths about nonviolence and bullying.

Styles said he has volunteered on the King holiday for the past five years. “It’s very important to set an example and to be a servant,” he said. “He (King) gave so much of his life to service. He’s the example for me to follow.”

Points of Light’s Berry finds hope for the concept of community service because the holiday falls so early in the year.

“People make resolutions of sorts to serve throughout the year.”

But that doesn’t always happen.

As too often happens at nonprofits, especially smaller ones, volunteers come and go. Or smaller nonprofits go overlooked altogether.

While Everett Flanigan, administrative dean at Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta, has seen a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in volunteers each King holiday, the challenge is to keep the momentum going. He finds encouragement though in the number of teen and young adult volunteers who are showing up.

“People are reminded of what King had to say about the common good in most people, and that causes people to want to do something,” he said. “Even if it’s only a couple of hours of doing something good, it makes them feel better.”

Most people, though, don’t keep it up after the holiday, he said.

“It’s like going to church at Easter,” he said. “If (going to church) is not a common part of your life, you may not keep it up.”