Philly kicks off 27th annual MLK Day of Service

Rich Davis (left) and Shani George (right) administer COVID-19 tests

Rich Davis (left) and Shani George (right), RNs with the Black Doctors Consortium, administer COVID-19 tests at Girard College’s MLK Day of service on Jan. 17, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While Philadelphia’s annual Day of Service in honor of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went mostly virtual, people still showed up to mark the event at Girard College on Monday where COVID-19 tests and vaccinations and flu shots were offered.

It was a small group compared to the thousands who usually participate at the school where King once lent his support to a desegregation effort and which usually serves as the hub of the event, the largest of its kind in the nation.

During the opening ceremony, Dr. James Turner, interim president of Girard College, said this year’s theme of “Combatting Racism & Building Community,” honors King’s legacy and focuses on the most pressing issues for Black Americans today.

“The themes that we will hit today are health justice, voting rights, gun violence, and earning a living wage,” he said.

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Monday also marked one year since the first COVID-19 vaccinations were offered to people in North Philadelphia. Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors Consortium, said she had to fight to bring the vaccines to the neighborhood.

The exterior of Girard College
Girard College offered free COVID-19 vaccines from the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and free COVID-19 testing from the Black Doctors Consortium on MLK Day, Jan. 17, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Back then, there was not a lot of vaccines, and it was only allocated to folks who needed it and who you thought would take it. But the narrative was that Black and brown people did not want to get vaccinated. They were too hesitant,” she said. “So, when the vaccine was rolled out, there was none in the community. I had to fight for that and advocate to get it behind closed doors for that to happen.”

Stanford said that’s how Philadelphia became the American city with the highest percentage of Black people who are fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg.

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Todd Bernstein is the longtime organizer of the Day of Service event, which he said has continued for 27 years with more than one million volunteers over that span.

“This is not just the first day celebration. It’s about making Dr. King’s legacy of racial and social justice our mission to not just one day, but every day,” he said. “Dr. King was a man of action, 365 days of the year. He knew that to achieve fundamental change, to promote justice that had to be done every day and the King Day of Service serves as a springboard to ongoing community involvement.”

Bernstein said giving out masks, and providing COVID-19 testing and vaccines to people who need them is an extension of King’s work.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes also called on people to step up and register people to vote.“Young people in high school, say to your high school, college classmates, register the votes,” he said. “Vote.Pa is the simplest and easiest way to do it, but do that. Let’s turn this dream into power, and let’s turn that power into change. Change for the people that we care about change with the people that Dr. King died for.”

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