‘Not just a birthday celebration’: Philly’s 2024 MLK Day of Service to focus on civil rights

The event has many service projects, including the creation of a mural to celebrate the history of the civil rights movement.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

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Community clean-ups, voter outreach, a concert event, and much more are planned for the MLK Day of Service in and around Philadelphia. City leaders gathered Wednesday afternoon to provide more details on volunteer opportunities to ensure that MLK Day is about more than just another day off.

“Thousands of people of all backgrounds and ages will be out in force around our region to honor Dr. King and a legacy of turning community concerns into action,” said Todd Bernstein. He is the founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. He also leads the group Global Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for civic engagement through volunteer service.

The overarching theme for the 29th annual King Day of Service is the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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“Sixty years after Dr. King led a movement to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act, efforts to reverse civil rights are ever present,” Bernstein said. “The King Day of Service is not just a birthday celebration. It is an opportunity to make Dr. King’s legacy of social justice our mission too, not just on King Day, but every day with, as he would say, ‘a fierce urgency of now.’”

The projects volunteers will be working on include addressing gun violence and health equity issues. Bernstein said their group has learned that when gun violence patients are released from hospitals, they need things such as hygiene kits, so volunteers will put those kits together on January 15.

Voter information will also be compiled and distributed in areas of the city where voter turnout is low in hopes of encouraging people to get involved.

The Black Clergy of Philadelphia will host a rally at noon, while the Black Doctors Consortium will host a health and wellness fair. Temple University will also have a job fair led by the Urban League of Philadelphia.

The Day of Service “is extremely significant, not just here in our city, but around the nation,” said Mayor Cherelle Parker, noting that it’s part of a year-round effort to promote social justice work. “Celebrating this legacy is extremely important … This is the first and largest King Day celebration in the nation.”

Parker said she has long been inspired by Dr. King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” speech, delivered just months before he was assassinated. “Dr. King talks about this innate desire that is in all human beings to, in essence, act as the drum major, to be out front, to be acknowledged, and to be recognized for what we do.”

She said it’s a reminder that acknowledgment for your work is not as important as getting the work done.

In addition to volunteer opportunities galore, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s vice president for education and community Danielle Allen announced plans for the 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert, presented by PECO. The concert, to be led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will take place for the tenth year in the Girard College Chapel on January 15, beginning at 3 pm (doors open at 2 pm). Free tickets are now available at the orchestra’s website.

Global Citizen will lead a reading coach training in partnership with the Read by 4th Campaign. The initiative protects every child’s right to read in Philadelphia by connecting community volunteers with a citywide movement for early literacy, among other events.

The National King Day of Service was created in 1994 through federal legislation co-authored by Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, both veterans of the civil rights movement with Dr. King.

More information about service opportunities is available online.

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