Service is growing part of the King Day observance.
More than 400 employees of Northwestern Mutual are fanning out at schools and nonprofits on Monday, to lend a hand. One of those workers is Kamilah Williams-Kemp.
“I will be volunteering at Impact 211, which is an organization that connects individuals to food pantry services, disaster services, health care information,” Williams-Kemp says.
Williams-Kemp helped organize NML's King Day volunteer activities. She’s part of the company’s African American Employee Resource Group. She says the work will honor King, by giving back to the community.
“I really believe that volunteerism and this day of service is a powerful way to put Dr. King’s ideals into action,” Williams-Kemp says.
“I think it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate King Day,” says Fr. Bryan Massingale, a racial justice professor at Marquette University. He teaches a class on the late civil rights leader.
“(King Day is) not just focused on remembering an historical man and his contributions, but carrying forth his legacy, and that is of being of service, especially to the disadvantaged and those who are in need,” Massingale says.
The U.S. government established the federal holiday marking King’s birthday in 1983. Eleven years later, Congress designated it as a National Day of Service.
UW-Madison historian William Jones says the move may have distanced the holiday from the man it celebrates.
“I don’t think it’s particularly consistent with Martin Luther King's own legacy,” Jones says.
Jones wrote a book about King’s March on Washington. He believes “service” would not be at the top of King’s list, for activities marking his birthday.
“If we think about his public actions, they were much more forceful, and challenging of inequality and injustice. So I think he would probably spend a holiday like this protesting or marching and trying to highlight the degree to which, I think, we haven’t completely achieved the vision of society that he had,” Jones says.
Jones adds that he supports the idea of people contributing to their communities, and says it’s a “proper” way to use a holiday.
In addition to the NML workers, hundreds of others are expected to perform service, in the name of King, on Monday. Dozens of projects are planned in the Milwaukee area, alone.