After years of campaigning by individuals and groups across the nation, President Ronald Reagan signed into law on November 2, 1983 a bill making the third Monday in January a national holiday to celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The first national King holiday was observed in 1986, eighteen years after his death.
In 1988, Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Harris Wofford, a close friend and colleague of Dr. King during the Civil Rights movement, and his executive assistant, Todd Bernstein, had a conversation one evening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just days before the King holiday. They discussed the irony of how so many had lobbied for a federal holiday honoring Dr. King and yet, in the two years since the national observance started, it was becoming for millions just another day off. They were particularly concerned about young people using the holiday to simply sleep late, go to a mall or watch television. Wofford knew Dr. King would be appalled if he was aware that young people were doing nothing on the day to celebrate his life of action and fighting for social justice.
The discussion between Wofford and Bernstein focused on an idea of uniting diverse groups to engage in a community building process, to turn concerns about societal challenges into citizen action, and building ongoing partnerships. They came up with the idea of individuals, groups, families, and people of all backgrounds engaging in a process of defining needs and organizing efforts to solve them, which could serve as a springboard to sustainable civic engagement.
In 1994, while serving in the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, both colleagues of Dr. King during the civil rights movement, co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act to transform the King holiday into a nationwide call to citizen action. President Clinton signed this legislation into law later that year on August 23, which created the national Martin Luther King Day of Service.
In 1996, Bernstein organized the first King Day of Service in the nation in Philadelphia. Some 1,000 volunteers, particularly Philadelphia public school students and AmeriCorps national service members, turned out for dozens of King Day of Service projects, just days after the city had been paralyzed by the largest snowfall in its history.
The King Day of Service included a signature project, which serves as the main hub and center of media focus. Habitat for Humanity in North Philadelphia served as the first signature project and included Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, Senator Harris Wofford, Habitat volunteers, and area students.
In 1997, the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service expanded beyond Philadelphia's boundaries into surrounding Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties and drew more than 3,000 volunteers.
In 1999, the first Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award was started. The award is given annually to an individual or organization that has made an extraordinary contribution to the King Day of Service, together with demonstrating a sustainable commitment to civic engagement.
Following the 1999 project, when 12,000 people participated in some 350 projects, the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C. honored the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service with their national Point of Light Award "for the project's work to further the awareness of the ideas of Dr. King and for contributions the project and its volunteers are making toward solving local and national social problems, especially as they relate to young people."
In 2000, the King Day of Service added a reflection component. Program guidelines were developed to encourage discussion at each project about the Dr. King’s life, legacy, and the importance of ongoing service.
In January 2003, the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service expanded beyond the five-county southeastern Pennsylvania region into Camden County, New Jersey. More than 30,000 volunteers participated in 500 projects. The following year, Burlington County was added and some 40,000 people volunteered in about 500 projects throughout the seven-county region.
In January 2005, the 10th annual King Day of Service drew another record turnout--45,000 volunteers in nearly 600 service projects. A Kids’ Carnival was added at the signature project focusing on teaching hundreds of children, ages 5-12, about Dr. King and how kids could follow his example of helping others.
After campaigning for years to use the Greater Philadelphia organizing model for a nationwide expansion effort through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), Bernstein was asked by David Eisner, CNCS Chief Executive Officer, to help lead such an effort. From 2006-2008, Bernstein served as the director of the King Day of Service National Expansion Initiative through CNCS. During this time, dozens of cities, large and small, implemented many elements of Philadelphia’s successful organizing model to start or expand their own King Day of Service programs.
In 2006, the Greater Philadelphia event expanded once more, with 50,000 volunteers serving throughout Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware in some 700 projects. In January 2008, the 13th annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service drew more than 60,000 volunteers in nearly 750 service projects.
In the summer of 2008, planning began on MLK365, a new initiative to promote and support sustainable civic engagement and year-round volunteer opportunities. The MLK365 program formally kicked off in 2009 as part of the 14th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, which mobilized over 65,000 volunteers in a record 900 projects. This included more than 3,000 signature project volunteers at Temple University’s Liacouras Center arena and included a large civic engagement expo, health fair, and the kids’ carnival.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2009, MLK365 organized weekly projects for King Day of Service partners and others. MLK365 staff worked with sponsors to help design and implement ongoing corporate employee volunteer programs.
In 2012, the 17th Annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service was again the largest-ever, with over 100,000 volunteers participating in some 1,500 projects throughout the region. Girard College hosted the area’s signature project with some 4,000 volunteers. Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Senator Wofford, Congressman Chaka Fattah, Congressman Bob Brady, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley and Girard College President Autumn Graves joined volunteers of all ages and backgrounds from around the region in some 150 projects throughout the campus.
What started eighteen years ago as a project in Philadelphia has grown into a national movement in hundreds of cities and towns, with more and more projects turning into sustainable service opportunities and ongoing partnerships. Using the King Day of Service as a springboard, MLK365 works with partners to encourage year-round civic engagement and ongoing volunteer opportunities for everyone in the Philadelphia area.
MLK365 and the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service are programs of Global Citizen, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement, community volunteering, civic responsibility, and sustained active citizenship among diverse groups, particularly young people. Global Citizen promotes democracy building, voter education, and participation and brings together people of all ages and backgrounds to build ongoing service partnerships, resulting in growing understanding of how much more we have in common than our differences.