WASHINGTON – Paying tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President-elect Barack Obama took time on the eve of his inauguration to roll up his shirtsleeves and put a fresh coat of paint on the walls of a shelter for homeless youth, while Michelle Obama worked on an assembly line, filling bags with toothpaste, lotion and other supplies to be shipped to troops overseas.
The King holiday took on a special meaning this year as the observance melded into the inaugural celebration for the first African-American president. People found ways to honor both men through public service, which has long been the cornerstone of the King holiday.
Though the King family promoted it as “a day on, not a day off,” the idea never caught on to the magnitude that it did this year. Weeks ago, Obama stepped in and issued a plea to Americans to find ways to help others on Monday. With the help of his vast database of volunteers, more than 1 million people across America responded.
“The Internet is an amazing tool to organize people,” Obama said. “We saw that in the campaign, but we don’t want to use it just in elections. We want to use it to rebuild America.”
The number of volunteers this year was more than double last year’s, according to Isaac Farris, president and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, and was the largest turnout since the holiday was first observed in 1986. More than 100 projects were scheduled in the Chicago area, including a youth project to eradicate poverty, a warm-underwear drive and chopping weeds in a forest preserve.
“We never wanted this holiday to be about hero worship,” said Farris, who also is King’s nephew. “If he were here, he would be the first person to say, ‘Don’t sit around on the King holiday talking about how great I am. Get out and help someone.’ ”
With King’s son, Martin Luther King III, at his side, Obama began his day visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He spoke to 14 patients, all of whom were injured in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Then he was off to the Sasha Bruce House, where he joined others painting and preparing dormitories for girls and boys.
He threw off his jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves and started painting, a job he said he had when he was 17, earning minimum wage.
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” Obama said, quoting King. Then he joked, “This is good practice ’cause I’m moving to a new house tomorrow.”
While the Obamas performed public service, African-American leaders, joined by Obama’s former Republic presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, held a summit at a Washington high school where they announced that they would take on education as the next major civil rights challenge.
McCain was a surprising ally, according to the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the organizers of Monday’s event. Yet the senator has signed on with the Education Equality Project and will work with civil rights activists, education administrators, mayors and other politicians to address disparities in public schools.
“There is no way we could work effectively to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday than to make education the top civil rights issue of the 21st century,” said McCain, as the mostly black audience gave him a standing ovation. “President Obama will work to unite us, and this issue is the most difficult issue that we face.”
The event drew a diverse group, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entertainer Wyclef Jean and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, all of whom spoke about the importance of improving education.