King's Disappointment

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

BY: Harris Wofford


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.

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