Though the campaign to create a federal holiday in honor of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. began shortly after his assasination in 1968, the holiday wasn’t made official until 1983. President Ronald Regan signed the declaration. Even then, though, some states did not observe it. The first year all 50 states celebrated the holiday was 2000.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which takes place Jan. 18 this year, has evolved into a national day of service. Community service is a little different during the coronavirus pandemic. “Typically, MLK Day is a time for us to bring everyone together for a large celebration and comemmoration of Dr. King,” says Debbie Brutchey, executive director of the nonprofit L.A. Works. “We had to figure out a new way to do it this year because the sense of community is so important for our volunteer events.” L.A. Works and three other community groups have found ways to celebrate the day with virtual programs.
California African American Museum: The museum’s celebration this year highlights Dr. King’s dedication to labor and workers’ rights. The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest majority Black orchestra in the U.S., kicks off the program with a 10 a.m. concert. An 11 a.m. study group will focus on King’s 1968 speech in support of Memphis sanitation workers, popularly known as the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. There will also be a 1 p.m. panel discussion on Black workers and social justice, from the 1968 struggle in Memphis to today’s movement for social change.
A highlight for children will be the 2:30 p.m. family story time and poetry workshop. Author Alice Faye Duncan will read excerpts from her children’s book, “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968.” A haiku writing workshop will follow.
The L.A. Works MLK Jr. Day of Service includes virtual workshops on criminal justice, homelessness and food insecurity and race for adults. And there are lots of spots available for what is sure to be a highlight for kids: a Minecraft March on Washington! Brutchey says the idea came out of a staff discussion of how important gaming has become for children during the pandemic. “For example, my 8-year-old daughter gets off her virtual school and jumps on to virtual games so she can socialize with her friends,” she says.
No prior Minecraft experience is required to participate in the event, as tour guides will help participants move through the world. They’ll point out important sites and introduce the various activists and historical figures that will be present. from the march in 1963 all the way to today. Tours kick off hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and ages 8 and up can participate with an adult. At the end, participants will receive a space in Minecraft where they can build and reflect on their experience.
Want to carry the spirit of service forward? L.A. Works just launched FAVE (Families Active in Volunteer Enrichment), a monthly program where families gather virtually to do service projects from home. There are free options where you assemble your own supplies, and paid options where supply kits are delivered to you at home.
Big Sunday’s Virtual MLK Day Block Party and Clothing Collection takes the place of the local service organization’s usual in-person event. The Zoom block party is happening from 11 a.m.-noon, and promises music, dancing and service projects that you can do at home. The block party tradition of donut brunch continues, and participating families can order donuts in advance for pickup that morning.
You can sponsor a laundry kit or “Winter SOS” kit for someone in need for just $15. You can also purchase supplies and assemble these kits at home during the block party. Big Sunday is also asking families to create handmade, personalized cards to help turn these donations into gifts for fellow families. No special talent is required. Just write or draw something from the heart and drop off your kits and creations between 10 a.m. and noon Jan. 19-20.
This year’s clothing drive is only accepting new clothes, due to the pandemic. Families can drop items off at the Big Sunday offices, or use the organization’s handy Target registry to purchase and send items.
The Long Beach MLK Day of Service, sponsored by Leadership Long Beach, will also happen virtually this year. The group’s slogan for the event is “Make it a day on, not a day off,” and that is still the plan. A two-hour online MLK Day virtual program will include music, art and insight from local civic, community and social justice leaders.
And while the traditional large-scale community projects that have been part of the Long Beach event for the past 10 years will not be happening this year for safety reasons, virtual service projects will be offered instead. Families can participate in these fun, educational and productive projects safely from home.