Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life in service to the nation. Decades after his death, that contribution continues. Today’s holiday has evolved into a national day of service, a fitting legacy for a man who worked selflessly for the betterment of all Americans.
King never lived to see the racial unity he so fearlessly advocated for in his time, and it’s anybody’s guess what he would make of an America a half-century later that is still so besieged with social injustice. Blacks still face the lingering effects of discrimination across a range of fronts - jobs, housing, educational opportunity among them. Working-class Americans see a growing gap as they struggle to climb the ladder to prosperity. The re-emergence of white supremacist groups also has brought a flashback of ugliness to the digital age.
Still, race relations are undeniably better within the four corners of the country. The nation’s political leadership at every level looks more like the communities it serves. Americans also have a sharper sense of what manifests as bigotry. Affirmative action programs are gaining favor, Americans are increasingly upset with the way minorities are treated and cities across the nation are working to improve policing, schools and public services in heavily minority neighborhoods that have been long ignored.
As a civil rights activist and Baptist minister, King recognized the cause of justice would be waged over the long arc of history. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase," he wrote. That was especially true with his nonviolent approach to social change during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. But King saw the good in humankind, if not the human condition. His inspiration was powerful because it was real. He knew the burden of hate would turn on itself and that every American would have a role in starting a new path of equal opportunity for all.
King paired his challenge of the status quo with a simple message: What are you going to do about it? For him, speaking out was only the first step in creating a more just, inclusive society. To that end, the evolution of the King federal holiday into a national day of service is a perfect way to carry on his legacy.
Thousands of residents around Tampa Bay, Florida and the nation will spend this holiday serving meals to the hungry, spending time with the elderly, repairing schools, homes and community centers and collecting clothes and food for those without. These projects address the true needs of communities, bring dignity and relief to our neighbors and build bridges across America that increase understanding. This outpouring of volunteerism - dubbed "a day on, not a day off” - keeps King’s legacy strong. Online tools can connect anyone interested to a project in their area.
Today’s celebration of King’s life cannot be separated from the embrace of his righteous ideals. In a nation sharply divided, his message of unity, equal opportunity and empowerment for all is as welcome as ever. King’s inspiration continues to shape the conscience of the nation. This holiday is a moment to honor King’s service by getting involved and reflecting on his faith in humankind.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.