Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrates its 25th year


By Michael Wunder, News Editor

On Jan. 17, UNO students will have the opportunity to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by volunteering community-wide in the 2011 Day of Service.

The event is coordinated by United We Serve, a nationwide service initiative with the goal of meeting “growing social needs resulting from the economic downturn,” according to the organization’s website.

All Americans are encouraged to make the federal holiday “a day on, not a day off.”  UNO students can register online at to participate in projects such as creating blankets for those in need and creating conservation materials for Madagascar youth.

Volunteers will check in at 8:30 a.m. at the Thompson Alumni center to participate in service activities on campus or work with nonprofit organizations throughout the Omaha community.

Students will be provided with lunch, a T-shirt and an “opportunity to reflect on the day’s significance,” according to the UNO Day of Service website .  The day’s events will end at 1:15 p.m.

“It’s always better to give than to receive,” said Willie Hamilton, president of Black Men United, an Omaha grassroots organization.  “Everyone can make a difference.”

We place a lot of importance on the big things,” Hamilton said.  “In reality, it’s the small things that count.”

Last year, UNO students joined the Chancellor and Mayor during the Day of Service and served 371 meals at the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club.  It was one of the many community activities planned to bring citizens closer to King’s continually elusive dream.

“We have a long way to go,” Hamilton said.  “We need to look past the dream and look to the future.”

When a bill proposing the creation of a holiday honoring the influential pastor was first submitted by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1979, it failed to pass by five votes.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms led opposition to the bill.  Opponents were concerned with the cost of a paid holiday for federal employees and were also wary of honoring a private citizen with a national holiday.  Previously, federal holidays were established in honor of public officials

Helms also accused King of promoting “action-oriented Marxism.” 

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was another notable opponent of the proposition, though he eventually reversed his opinion.

In 1981, six million signatures were collected in support of the bill.  A year earlier, Stevie Wonder popularized the push for the day’s creation by releasing the single “Happy Birthday.”

In 1983, under the watchful eye of Coretta Scott King and despite his own reluctance, President Ronald Reagan was forced by a veto-proof majority vote to sign a bill establishing a federal holiday in honor of the Civil Rights Movement’s passionate leader. 

The holiday was first observed on Jan. 20, 1986, making 2011 the holiday’s 25th birthday.

In 1994, congress made the holiday a National Day of Service.

According to the Day of Service website, the holiday offers Americans from all walks of life the opportunity to empower themselves, strengthen their communities and bridge barriers.

But volunteering doesn’t need to be reserved for holidays, Hamilton said.

“It shouldn’t be a one-day thing.  It should be a year-round thing.”