ABOVE PHOTO: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., of Montgomery, Alabama speaks at a mass demonstration before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington as civil rights leaders called on the government to put more teeth in the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions, May 17, 1957. King said both Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the cause of justice on civil rights questions. (AP Photo/Charles Gorry)
By Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir, Vice Chairman
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday that is observed on the third Monday of January each year. Signed into law in 1983 and first commemorated in 1986, the holiday pays tribute to the memory and teachings of Dr. King — justice, equality, economic self-determination, and overall peace between all people.
A central element of the celebration involves volunteerism and acts of community service. Examples include street clean ups, volunteer programs at schools and youth centers, serving meals at homeless shelters and neighborhood beautification projects such as planting trees to symbolize growth. These acts of service are designed to bring our communities together in the name of Dr. King’s dream; to embrace the ideals of brotherhood and sisterhood.
But one might wonder if these acts truly represent Dr. King’s vision.
Do these acts bring about impactful change? That question is especially relevant when we look at Dr. King’s fight for voting rights, a fight that continues today.
On May 17, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech in Washington, D.C. In this speech, he denounced the existence of racial inequality in our nation generally and, specifically within our federal government.
“Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”
“Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”
Volunteerism and community service are important pursuits. They reinforce the ways in which we are all interdependent and how our fates are tied together. But these pursuits do not directly impact some of the biggest challenges we face today. One of the most critical is our ability to exercise our right to vote.
As a leading champion of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King understood the transformational power of voting. In our democracy, our vote is our voice. As Dr. King alluded to in his speech, our vote allows us to determine policies, create legislation and elect officials who share our priorities.
While volunteerism is important, our efforts to honor the memory of Dr. King would be far better served by teaching our young people and others in our communities the importance of the vote and the benefits of participating in our elections.
We should honor Dr. King’s memory by engaging with students and teaching them how to draft legislation and understand the process of passing bills that reflect policies they believe would better our democracy and their conditions.
While we debate the importance of voting, those who oppose us are making every effort to limit our access to the ballot. They pass laws and implement policies designed to prevent or discourage us from voting because they understand that our vote is powerful, even if we don’t recognize that fact.
Dr. King understood it. That’s why it is our responsibility to not just celebrate his legacy through community service, but also through long-term acts of service that present permanent, positive outcomes.
The vote is a perfect example. If we want to honor him, let’s heed his words…” Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”