In a divided nation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood out for his passion for humanity, his dedication to civil rights, and his unwavering commitment to his now-famous dream. Today, more than 50 years after his death, those who carry the torch of service and civility in the face of opposition, are calling on others to shift their focus from discord to discussion, animosity to action, honoring the legacy the movement figurehead left behind. 

“To achieve our great capacity as human beings for truth, love, equity and true peace leading to the creation of the Beloved Community—we must shift priorities,” Dr. Bernice A. King tells EBONY. The youngest child of MLK and Coretta Scott King says that shift begins with each of us as individuals. “We must shift towards robust conversation and engagement about the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism my father spoke of.”

While African Americans have made significant strides since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, the work of King and others is far from complete. According to FBI data released last August, hate crimes against African Americans rose by 40 percent, compared to 2019. Nearly 60 years after Jim Crow Laws were countermanded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—measures made possible because of MLK’s resolve—Black people remain the most targeted racial group by a large margin. And more than 50 years after King organized the Poor People’s March on Washington, 37 million people still live in poverty across the nation.

AmeriCorps, a federal agency responsible for the nation's call to service and volunteerism is steadily working to disrupt these numbers and be a helping hand to those communities in need. “There are more than 250,000 AmeriCorps members serving in over 40,000 locations in every state and territory—DC, Puerto Rico and tribal nations,” says Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps. The Biden nominee, confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month, recently participated in the slate of events organized by the King Center in Atlanta to commemorate the 37th annual King holiday observance. Smith shares that the last year-plus of the pandemic has underscored the urgent need for volunteerism and philanthropy.  

“We have seen during these times of peril over the past two years, people serving each other, people supporting each other, people looking back to think about their neighbors in times of isolation, at times where food was needed, in times where we experienced health inequality and other disparities,” Smith tells EBONY. “Service to one another matters. It’s been that bridge over troubled water.”

Since 1994, MLK Day has been observed as a national day of service. “It is actually the only federal holiday that is a national day of service as well,” Smith notes. Those who follow King’s teachings see this day as an opportunity for people from all walks of life to come together and be of service to others. “If you care about what Dr. King preached, if you care about how he lived his life, if you care about equality, if you care about justice, if you care about breaking the impact of systemic inequality in our community,” Smith asserts, “You can’t just talk about it. You've got to give back and make those words mean something.” They also see the day of action as an opportunity for people to reflect on how they will be of service to others throughout the year.

Dr. Bernice A. King whole-heartedly believes that shifting our priorities from a “thing-oriented” society to a “people-oriented” society will be the way we reconstruct our fractured nation. ”With those priorities in place,” King says, “we can shift our behavior towards nonviolent action—what I call Educate, Advocate and Activate—leading to the transformation we seek.”