After years of lobbying 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 fought 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 disengaged on the day that was designated to celebrate his life of action and fighting for social justice.
The discussion between Wofford and Bernstein focused on uniting diverse groups, turning societal and community challenges into citizen action, and building ongoing partnerships to solve pressing needs. They came up with the idea of individuals, groups, families, and people of all backgrounds and ages engaging in a community-building process of defining needs and organizing volunteer efforts to solve them.
In 1994, when he served in the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act to transform the King holiday into a nationwide call to service. 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 largest snowfall in the city’s history.
The King Day of Service included a signature project restoring a Habitat for Humanity house in North Philadelphia, which was the main media focus and included Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, Senator Harris Wofford, and area students.
In 1997, the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service expanded beyond Philadelphia into surrounding Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties and drew more than 3,000 volunteers.
Following the 1999 project when 12,000 people participated, the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C. honored the Greater Philadelphia 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 the conclusion of each project about Dr. King’s life and legacy and the importance of serving others.
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. The following year, Burlington County, New Jersey, was added and some 40,000 people volunteered in some 500 projects throughout the seven-county region.
In January 2005, the 10th annual King Day of Service drew a record 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 young people could follow his example of helping others.
In 2006-2008, Bernstein served as the director of the King Day of Service National Expansion Initiative through the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C. During this time, dozens of additional cities, large and small, implemented the successful Philadelphia organizing model to start or expand their own King Day of Service programs.
In 2006, we expanded once more, with 50,000 volunteers serving throughout Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. In January, 2008, the 13th annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service drew more than 60,000 volunteers in more than 600 service projects.
In the summer of 2008, planning began on MLK365, our new initiative to promote and support sustainable civic engagement and volunteer opportunities year-round. 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 and health fair. Excitement around the inauguration of President Barack Obama saw a dramatic nationwide increase in King Day of Service participation.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2009, MLK365 organized monthly projects for King Day of Service partners and others. We also worked with sponsors to help design and implement ongoing corporate volunteer programs for their employees.
In 2010, more than 70,000 volunteers served in some 1,100 projects in the 15th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. More than 3,000 volunteers served at our Girard College signature site, where forty-five years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined local NAACP President Cecil B. Moore and many other Philadelphians on the front lines of the civil rights movement, to call for a change in the school’s discriminatory admissions policy. That movement led to a court-ordered change, with Girard College now having provided for decades a first rate free education for thousands of deserving young men and woman from all backgrounds.
Highlighting the projects at Girard College, Mayor Michael Nutter joined more than one hundred volunteers assembling 2000 weatherization kits for families in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Volunteers also participated in weatherization trainings, while 200 others canvassed the neighboring North Philadelphia community distributing 15,000 free compact fluorescent light bulbs to residents. Girard hosted some 150 projects, workshops, a Kids’ Carnival, Health and Wellness Fair, and MLK365 Civic Engagement Expo.
In 2011, more than 75,000 volunteers participated in 1,200 projects in the 16th annual King Day of Service, again making it the largest King day event in the nation.
In 2012, more than 85,000 people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Philadelphia region volunteered in some 1,500 service projects in the 17th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. 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.
In 2013, more than 115,000 people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Philadelphia region volunteered in some 1,600 service projects in the 18th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. Girard College hosted the area’s 2013 signature project, with some 4,000 volunteers. The day kicked off with an opening ceremony.Highlighting 150 projects, workshops and presentations at Girard College was KEYSPOTS: Powered by Freedom Rings Partnership, a citywide initiative to bring Internet access, training, and technology to all Philadelphia communities. The signature site project highlighted one of the KEYSPOTS’ programs– the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) Free Netbook Program, with the distribution of netbook computers, modems, and digital literacy resources to more than 150 pre-qualified PHA residents.
In 2014, more than 125,000 people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Philadelphia region volunteered in some 1,700 service projects in the 19th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. Girard College hosted the area’s signature project, with some 4,000 volunteers. Highlighting the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, projects included a school supplies drive, book drive, and other projects designed to support Philadelphia Public Schools.
In 2015, more than 135,000 people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Philadelphia region volunteered in some 1,800 service projects for the 20th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. Girard College hosted the area’s signature project, with some 4,000 volunteers. Highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, projects included the making of multi-lingual voting signs, voter registration drives, and other projects designed to support voter education and turnout.
What started twenty 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 ongoing programs and partnerships. We continue to work with our partners and others to encourage year-round civic engagement and ongoing volunteer opportunities by participating in our MLK365 program.