Best Way to Mark King Holiday

On Monday, for the 13th time, Americans will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. Yet many aren't sure of the best way to mark the day. The man we honor gave the answer with his challenge that "Life's persistent and most urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?' "

Nothing would have frustrated Dr. King more than people sitting at home watching TV, sleeping late, or shopping. The King holiday should be a day on, not a day off; a day of action, not apathy; a day of responding to community needs, not a day of rest and recreation.

Certainly we should celebrate the civil rights victories that King fought for and won. But he would want us to look ahead to the work yet to be done. When he died, he was trying to move up the next steep slope - the mountain of poverty in our cities, the mountain faced by a generation of young people lacking hope and opportunity.

Four years ago President Clinton signed legislation transforming the King holiday into a national day of service. This law remembers King the way he would have liked, reflecting his belief that "everyone can be great because anybody can serve." The day should bring out the greatness in people - especially the young - by gathering them together to make a difference in their communities.

On Monday, Americans will put this idea into practice. In Philadelphia, 6,000 volunteers will renovate schools, clean neighborhoods, and read to children. Students in Brooklyn will go door-to-door collecting food and clothing for the homeless. California's several thousand AmeriCorps members are leading a drive to clean parks, remove graffiti, and plant community gardens.

Thirty years after his death, King's dream has not yet come true. We still don't live in a nation where all God's children are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Recognizing this, the president has launched a race initiative to move our country forward. He is right to lift our sights to the goal of one America. Achieving that goal - and King's dream - will take dialogue, study, and action. Investing in education, eliminating discrimination, and providing more economic opportunity to those who have been left behind are among the steps needed. But as our population grows more diverse, we must also find effective new ways to connect Americans.

One way is service - working together to solve problems through citizen action. Service can bridge the gap between those of different backgrounds - whether in the intense experience of full-time service in the military, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps, or part-time volunteering. Working side-by-side in pursuit of common goals shatters stereotypes and helps people understand that their similarities are greater than their differences.

Indeed, serving together may do more to unite us than talking together. That's particularly true if we focus on a common goal: meeting the fundamental needs of our children and youth. Tapping the human spirit to help millions of at-risk young people have a bright future is the kind of galvanizing, central goal that can bring our country together.

Mobilizing society to help millions of children have brighter futures was a key idea behind the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia last spring. The campaign launched there is now under way, led by Colin Powell and backed by Mr. Clinton and all former living presidents. Achieving the summit goals will take a new level of personal and national commitment.

Words - King's words - will always be part of what we celebrate. But let us remember and honor King most of all by his deeds - and our own.

* Dexter Scott King, son of Martin Luther King Jr., is president and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. Harris Wofford, CEO of the Corporation for National Service in Washington, was a close friend and adviser to Dr. King and cosponsored the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act as a senator from Pennsylvania.

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