The other Martin Luther King Jr. holiday: how it's observed

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, established in 1994, is meant to be a day of personal action in Dr. King’s memory – as its boosters say, a day on, not a day off.

Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Volunteer Justin Brown takes the vacuum where few have ventured above the library in the chapel at the substance abuse treatment center, FirstStep House in Salt Lake City, Saturday. Martin Luther King Day is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

It’s that time of year again, and we don’t mean the NFL postseason. Yes, Martin Luther King Day is upon us.

As many Americans know, the King commemoration is an unusual holiday in a number of respects. It’s one of only three federally authorized celebrations of individuals, the others being Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day. It’s the newest US holiday, created in 1983. It’s been bolstered for 2012 by the opening of the new King memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

But here’s something many citizens may not know: It is really two holidays in one.

There’s the overall King Day, set in ’83 when President Reagan signed a bill putting it in federal law. And there’s the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, established when President Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994. King Service Day is meant to be a day of personal action in Dr. King’s memory on or near his holiday – as its boosters say, a day on, not a day off. It’s promoted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that also runs AmeriCorps and similar initiatives.

Last year in Philadelphia, for instance, computer professionals got together to donate used PCs to city families who lacked Internet access. In Washington, President Obama and his kids helped paint a middle school. In Des Moines, Iowa, members of Habitat for Humanity built 25 sheds for needy homeowners.

Many cities have organized King Service Day efforts. Philadelphia may be the most notable example: This year organizers expect to attract 85,000 volunteers to some 1,300 projects.

But if your city isn’t doing that, or if you don’t live in a city, you can go to the official King Service Day website (, enter your Zip Code, and find projects that are asking for volunteers.

Or organize your own. Plant trees in your neighborhood. Organize a book drive. Write letters to troops (the King website has tips on what to say and where to send them).

As King himself said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”

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