An article about Harris Wofford (HQ 1961, CD Ethiopia 1962-64; and Associate Director HQ 1964-67) and Martin Luther King Jr. appeared in the Washington Post today, written by Krissah Thompson. Here are a few excerpts.
For a decade and half, Harris Wofford has taken what Americans do on the national holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy personally.During his single term in the U.S. Senate, Wofford (D-Pa.) partnered with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in 1994 to pass the King Holiday and Service Act. Both men, veterans of the civil rights movement who were friends of King, were fed up and disappointed with what the holiday had become. Rather than a day of unity and service as they had envisioned, the holiday was little more than broadcasts of the “I have a dream” speech and sales at shopping malls.
Until last year.
That’s when Martin Luther King Jr. Day got a boost from Barack Obama’s election to the White House. The president-elect’s online campaign network promoted the idea of a day of service on the holiday, which last year took place the day before the inauguration. “It took a quantum leap forward,” Wofford said. But he doesn’t sense the same energy this year. “There’s still a long way to go to make it a truly all-American day,” he said.
The number of volunteers was small in the earliest days of the effort. In 2008, volunteers worked on about 5,000 service projects. Nicola Goren, acting chief of the CNCS, expects 10,000 projects this year.
No one is surprised about the slippage after last year’s historic moment. Although the projects have doubled from 2008, for Wofford, that’s still too small.
Too many people who were touched by King’s legacy still don’t get it, said Wofford.
In the early years, there was no guiding ritual for the day. Wofford and Lewis pushed for the federal government to support the idea of a national day of service. But soon, the holiday became swept up in the American marketing machine, with King Day sales and greeting cards. Organizations held parades and sold T-shirts and buttons.
Wofford and Lewis thought many observances were genuine reflections of King’s legacy, but found some aspects of the holiday displays downright distasteful.
After losing reelection in 1994, Wofford — who had helped establish the Peace Corps in the 1960s — remained in Washington and continued his King Day efforts. He became chief executive of CNCS from 1995 to 2001. The corporation oversees AmeriCorps as well as the King day of service.
Wofford said that he preaches his message every King holiday: “Martin Luther King was not a man asking people to go around the campfire singing ‘Kumbaya.’ He would want this to be a day of all races and faiths and sectors working together, having the experience of serving alongside people of very different backgrounds.”
Wofford, like Lewis, had a history with King. As an aide to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, it was Wofford who suggested that Kennedy call Coretta Scott King when her husband was arrested for participating in a sit-in.
Wofford also supported Obama’s campaign and appreciates his references to King’s legacy.
Obama remembered King on Sunday at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, asking Americans “to give up time in service of others, to give something of ourselves to a cause that’s greater than ourselves to honor and celebrate Dr. King.”
Wofford said he hopes that the news from Haiti will jolt those tempted to be complacent on King Day.
“It takes, sometimes, a shock to produce what you want,” Wofford said.
He will spend the holiday in Philadelphia, where one of the biggest service-related celebrations of King’s legacy is held. About 70,000 people are expected at more than 900 projects this year, said Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.
Wofford is scheduled to speak to those 70,000 volunteers. Then, he will join them in their efforts for as long as his 83-year-old bones can manage.