Many may view the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. solely through the lens of civil rights. For the two of us the centerpiece of his message is the power of service and volunteering to heal racial wounds and lead America into a new era of shared responsibility and equal opportunity. Much of Dr. King’s service message can be summed up in one of his most famous sayings: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others.”
For a quarter of a century, the nation has set aside a day to honor one of the great heroes of American history. In recent years, the holiday has been designated as a Day of Service–“a day on, not a day off”–to honor Dr. King’s fundamental commitment to engaging people of all races and walks of life in service to our nation and our world.
Nowhere is Dr. King’s persistent and urgent question more fully pursued and realized than in the two agencies we lead; the Peace Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Fifty years ago, Senator John F. Kennedy posed Dr. King’s question to an audience of 5,000 students on the steps of the University of Michigan with a challenge that they serve people in need around the world.
The eager response of those willing students ignited one of the signature service movements of our times. Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have volunteered through the Peace Corps to fight poverty, disease, illiteracy and a host of other challenges in 139 countries around the world. President Kennedy’s vision of an army of domestic anti-poverty volunteers was realized in 1965 with the creation of VISTA.
In 1993, millions more Americans were given the chance to serve with the creation of AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Each year, CNCS engages more than 5 million Americans in “getting things done” through its AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve programs. Our service members, who represent all races, ages and walks of life, stand shoulder to shoulder with communities across the country; feeding the hungry, helping struggling students in our schools, responding to natural disasters, and serving in many other ways.
Dr. King understood that working together in common purpose was essential to building what he called “the beloved community.” The desire of Americans to bridge divisions in order to lend a helping hand has always been bigger than politics. In 2009, in a spirit of bi-partisanship rarely seen these days in Washington, it took Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, working with leaders in the House, just weeks to introduce, debate, rally the votes and pass the Serve America Act–the most sweeping expansion of national service in a generation.
Like Dr. King, these visionary leaders understood that as a nation, we are strongest, we are more united, and we are at our best when we do for others. Our own service work has taught us that doing for others is also a powerful way to do for yourself.
We both grew up at a time when leadership opportunities for African American men, both in and out of government, were just beginning to open up. Inspired by the sacrifices of Dr. King and others, we chose the path of public service. That path has taken us from volunteering in poor villages abroad and homeless shelters here at home to leading America’s service agencies at a time of great need for grassroots hope among communities worldwide.
Today, we are pleased to announce that the Peace Corps and CNCS are partnering to bring the rewards of service to more people and communities – especially to those who may not have had that chance before. It is our privilege to be inspired by the Americans who make a commitment to service opportunities that have led them to a better life and opened new doors of opportunity.
On this 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, with so many problems facing our nation, we say to all Americans – if you have not already made service a part of your daily lives, get started today. And don’t just do it for one day. Make it a lifetime commitment. Dr. King changed the course of history armed only with the power of his ideals and grassroots citizen support. His life of service reminds us that the everyday acts of ordinary citizens make this country extraordinary.
Patrick A. Corvington is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Aaron S. Williams is Director of the Peace Corps.