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.
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 satyagraha--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.
When high-caste Indians refused to do the work of untouchables and join in cleaning the stinking latrines at a Great Indian Congress assembly, Gandhi organized a volunteer service corps to clean the latrines. "Why wait for independence for the necessary drain-cleaning?" he asked.
Martin took the same approach. In launching the Montgomery Improvement Association to run the bus boycott, Martin involved this Gandhian theme of service, saying they were organizing not just to fight segregation but to keep on working to improve all of Montgomery and create the "Beloved Community."
But King and Gandhi were both regularly disappointed when they tried to turn their followers to the hard work and occasional drudgery of constructive service. To the militants' 1960s cry of "Burn, baby, burn," King said, No, the watchword should be "Learn, baby, learn." In the long lulls between great protest campaigns, Martin struggled to engage people in constructive service and create the institutions for justice in America.
Gandhi said he could get a million people to go into the streets, to march in protest, and nonviolently to turn the other cheek when they were beaten with clubs; he could get a hundred thousand to go to jail--but he couldn't get 10 thousand, not even one thousand, to carry through, every day, the 13-fold constructive program.
So there is a time for everything, as Martin used to say, citing Ecclesiastes: "a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up."
For America, and for the legacy of Martin Luther King, it is morally and strategically right now to focus on service, and to turn that service into the kind of force that Gandhi and King believed it could become.
In today's world, we can ask, "Why wait for the government to act in order to tutor and mentor millions of young people who seem to be heading for disaster in life?" The most urgent and persistent question for us now is not how to overturn evil laws but how to point kids in the right direction, how to build the community institutions needed to fulfill the American dream--Martin's dream. I believe that Martin Luther King would see this beginning of the 21st century not as a time to go to jail to protest evil laws but as a time to build.
So Coretta Scott King is profoundly right when she says: "The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others."