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A History of MLK Day, from Atlanta to a Federal Holiday

by Katrina Mathis

Katrina works with AmeriCorps NCCC, which is a program of the Corporation for National & Community Service. This is her MLK Day story.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I was born and raised in Atlanta. I am fortunate, however, that because of Dr. King’s tireless contributions to the betterment of humanity, he and I knew and loved two very different Atlantas. But long before there was a federal holiday or the national day of service or even before Stevie Wonder’s harmonious “Happy Birthday” homage to the fallen drum major for justice, Atlanta honored her favorite native son.

Dr. King's birthday was always a holiday during my school days. Several days before the holiday, teachers created bulletin boards in tribute to Dr. King so our school walls abounded with the words and images of Dr. King's life. Students rehearsed for the school assembly in honor of Dr. King. Our classrooms engaged in lively discussions about Dr. King's life. We also reflected on what life would be like without him—“What if we still had to sit in the back of the bus or drink from the “colored only” water fountain?” We proudly recited passages from one of Dr. King's many speeches, read our "What Dr. King Means to Me" essays aloud and, in unison, sang verses of protest songs sung during the Civil Rights Movement.

Instead of going to school, Atlanta’s teachers and youth stayed home and watched the nationally televised Martin Luther King Ecumenical Services (now the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service) that honors the life of Dr. King. The services were held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, where Dr. King gave his first sermon and served as co-pastor.

Local, state and national dignitaries came every year to laud the life of the civil rights leader. Dr. King’s sister, Christine, wore big stylish hats, a local dancer turned, kicked and swayed to the recitation of Dr. King’s seminal speech, “I Have a Dream” and actor Kris Kristofferson sat in the back pew of the church every year. The ceremony was very southern—slow and intentional, draped in southern pomp and circumstance, hallmarked by hymns and civil rights anthems sung in perfect harmony, voices victoriously vaulting through the rafters to the heavens—a southern African American church experience.

The years after Dr. King’s death were the early years of my childhood—a time when Atlanta, teeming with hope and promise had already begun laying the foundation for the great city she is today. During this time, Atlanta elected her first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, who cited Dr. King’s death as his motivation to enter politics, and Andrew Young, who marched with Dr. King, became Georgia’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction and later ambassador to the U.N.

It was a time when many who marched with Dr. King and fought for racial equity and social justice began to fan the flame Dr. King had ignited, taking their places in the world to build upon Dr. King’s legacy.

When I was 6 or 7 years old my mom took my sisters and me to view Dr. King’s tomb. I remember that the eternal flame perplexed me to no end…”So Momma, the rain and the snow don’t make it go out?” At the time, my young mind could not come to grips with an inextinguishable flame and my mother, try as she may, wasn’t able to help me.

It’s fitting that I chose to fulfill my high school community service requirement at Atlanta’s King Center. It’s equally fitting that I now work for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency charged with promoting the national day in service in Dr. King’s name. Through my work, I have the privilege of seeing the impact that service has on people’s lives. Dr. King’s dedication to service is demonstrated in the words of a 1968 sermon he delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—The Drum Major Instinct. In that sermon he spoke about how he wanted to be remembered when he died and said, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others.”

As we approach this 15th “Day On, Not Off” Dr. King’s inextinguishable legacy of service, much like the flame at his memorial, continues to shine. It sparks the desire of people all over the world to give back, help others and make a difference.

Get involved on MLK Day – make it a day on, not a day off. To find a volunteer opportunity, visit serve.gov/MLKDay.

Like Katrina, you too can share your story of service. Share your story and links to your videos and pictures.

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