King's Disappointment

Both King and Gandhi were frustrated that they could get people to protest but not to serve.

Thinking that my friend Martin Luther King might turn over in his grave if he knew the holiday in his name was becoming just another day of shopping, TV, and relaxation, in 1994 I went to one of Martin's comrade-in-arms, Congressman John Lewis. "How do we make it a day on, not a day off?" I asked.

As legislators (I was a senator from Pennsylvania at the time), our solution was a bill. Congress passed the law charging the new Corporation for National Service and the Federal King Holiday Commission with organizing it as a national day of service.

It seemed so obvious. After all, it was King who had said, "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." And he said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is 'What are you doing for others?'" King and "service" are virtually synonymous, we thought.

Yet I have a confession. The holiday we created emphasizes something for which King was not known.

Rather, he was most closely associated with civil disobedience, struggle, a season of suffering, marching through unfriendly streets, facing snarling dogs, and going to jail. And, of course, as one whom Martin used to describe as the only lawyer in his camp who would help him go to jail instead of using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out of jail, I know that his insistence on nonviolent action changed the course of history.


Yet I believe that Martin would be deeply disappointed that his name were connected only with the fight for racial justice and nonviolent protest.

Time and again, Martin talked with me about a side of Mahatma Gandhi that deeply appealed to him. Not just the Gandhi of the salt march, and the years in prison, but Gandhi the servant leader.

Gandhi said that


--the name he gave to his way of action, "firmness in truth"--had two sides: civil disobedience and, the other side of the coin, constructive service.

Gandhi often said that his purpose in life was to live the sermon on the mount. He asked the Indian independence movement to carry out a 13-point plan of constructive service that included personal action to end untouchability by working, eating, and serving side by side with untouchables, by adopting them as members of one's family. It included teaching all Indians to read and bringing health care to every village.

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