WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama is urging the nation to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as it was originally intended: as a national day of service.
With the holiday falling a day before his Jan. 20 inauguration, Obama is seeking widespread volunteer initiatives across the country, such as serving meals to the homeless, cleaning schools and neighborhoods, or helping disadvantaged youths and the elderly.
Colin L. Powell, an honorary chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, announced the “Renew America Together” initiative Friday. He said he hoped the enthusiasm surrounding Obama’s election victory would inspire Americans to finally meet the holiday’s promise.
The federal holiday, first observed 23 years ago, has never settled into American traditions, such as parades on the Fourth of July or family dinners on Thanksgiving. In 1994, Congress designated it as a National Day of Service and even created a federal agency to oversee it. But the service day – tied to King’s birthday Jan. 15 and inspired by his words that “everybody can be great because anybody can serve” – never quite caught on.
Obama, who will become the nation’s first African-American president, plans to take part in the Washington-area activities along with his family, although details were not announced. Powell, who made history himself as the first African-American secretary of state, has long promoted volunteerism.
“Inaugurations are always a new start,” Powell said. “Inaugurations are a time for new leadership to come in and charge the nation to deal with the problems that we have.”
The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees the service day, is “thrilled with the extraordinary high level of attention the incoming president is giving this,” said spokesman Sandy Scott.
Last year, the agency recorded about 500,000 volunteers participating in roughly 5,000 service projects on King Day, Scott said in an interview. “This year will be the largest ever, fueled by President-elect Barack Obama’s call to service. … The number of volunteers will be in the millions,” he said.
Organizers are hoping that those who volunteer will stick with it year-round.
“Mentor at a school. Go to a first-grade class and read,” Powell said. “Go to a place where older people need to have company, need to have people visit with them.”
Like Obama’s presidential campaign, the current effort has a modern, Internet-driven twist.
Renew America Together is using technology to build a network of once-isolated volunteers. Its Web site, USAService.org, can link a potential community helper with a winter coat drive or a blood bank.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.