Martin Luther King Jr. Day a time to serve

COMPASS Other points of view

January 14, 2012 

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This federal holiday commemorates Dr. King's contributions to our country. Unlike most holidays, it is a day of service -- a day "on" rather than a day "off." It is a chance to give something back to our community as a living testament to Dr. King's belief that each person can truly change the world.

This year more than 150 lawyers and other legal professionals will gather in four communities throughout Alaska to provide free legal clinics to advise low-income residents on landlord-tenant, family law and public benefits problems. This is the third year the clinics will be offered in Alaska. These clinics have provided more than $91,000 worth of donated legal services to 600 Alaskans through a combined 1,100 hours of volunteer service.

Dr. King's legacy as a civil rights leader began in the early evening of Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her arrest triggered a boycott of the bus system. Martin Luther King Jr., then a 26-year-old pastor, led the boycott. It lasted 381 days and was the beginning of a movement that would literally change the face of America.

Two years later, Dr. King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as its president until his death. Under King's leadership, SCLC organized or supported protests against segregation in places like Selma and Birmingham that are now famous for the role they played in awakening the conscience of a nation. Dr. King believed that organized, nonviolent protests would trigger compelling press and television coverage of the black community's struggle for equal rights under the law.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, whose example freed a nation, Dr. King believed in fundamental human decency. He knew that when ordinary, decent people were confronted with the indignities and violence of segregation they would support changes in state and federal law to abolish these evils.

Dr. King cemented the civil rights movement in our minds one sweltering August day in 1963 on the gleaming steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a quarter of a million fellow citizens of all races. He spoke of his dream "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ... 'that all men are created equal' ... that (our) children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." His dream became our dream.

Many of the rights, which Dr. King addressed that August day, were enacted into federal law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1964, Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign of non-violent, civil disobedience. At 35 he was the youngest person ever to receive the award. Four years later he was dead from an assassin's bullet.

In 1983 Congress overwhelmingly approved a national holiday to be held the third Monday of each January commemorating Dr. King's birth. Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law. Democratic President Bill Clinton approved an amendment to the law in 1993 establishing the holiday as a national day of service.

Making this a day of service is a welcome example of a bipartisan commitment of conscience. Lawyers will be on hand in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Sitka on Monday to promote justice in our community. We hope that in future years others will join with us in other projects that together will move us closer to Dr. King's dream of equal justice for all Americans.


Zach Manzella is an attorney participating in the 2012 Martin Luther King Day of Service. More information on the day of service at www.alaskabar.org/mlk.

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