Reflections on the MLK Holiday, and Opportunities for Service in Chester and Beyond

Marina Barnett, Interim Assistant Provost for Civic Engagement
The sun sets behind the Washington monument with a view from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech.
The Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday is observed on Monday, Jan. 15 in 2024.

I was 17 when the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was made a federal observance in 1983.  Until then, I had staged my own battle against racism and oppression by staying out of school to commemorate his birthday.  It was the one way I could express the frustration I felt about the racism I experienced as a young student in a predominantly white and rural town.

The author, Associate Professor Marina Barnett.

Other than the “I Have a Dream” speech, we didn’t learn very much about King. It wasn’t until college that I learned about the evolution of his message, that began with ending racism and progressed to a focus on eliminating oppression in all forms. In graduate school, I learned about the Poor People’s Movement, and immersed myself in his teachings that taught community and political strategy. Ultimately, it is King’s messages of love, dedication, and commitment that have been guideposts by which I have lived my life.  

This year, I came across a new quote that has influenced my framework for going forward in life. It is from King’s 1968 speech “The Drum Major Instinct:”  

“If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

The bulk of the speech is a challenge to leaders. King warns about the destructiveness of seeking leadership to exercise what he calls the “Drum Major Instinct” – an instinct to use leadership positions to seek fame, recognition and praise. The primary goal of these “drum major" leaders is to be out front to gain personal attention, but they lack an organized agenda that moves us to a more just society.  

In the speech, King transitions to talk about leadership that is rooted in “Love, moral excellence, and generosity.” The quote that caught my attention, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” speaks to our modern times.  Themes of belonging, acceptance, and caring – all pillars of our Widener culture – are interwoven into this message. I love that King chooses to speak to the “educated” with his words. He could have focused on fame, fortune, or any of the other ways that we divide ourselves, but instead, he chose to focus on one of the elemental ways that we decide worthiness…a focus on knowledge.  

As an educator and a proud member of the Widener community, I took this as a direct challenge. How can we eliminate elitism in higher education? My mom used to regularly remind me that “To those whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). How do we use our gifts, talents, and expertise to serve our communities? Service is the manifestation of our love for one another. I want my students to know that it isn’t their G.P.A., major, or degree that will make them great, it is their willingness and commitment to use their personal and professional talents to care for and serve others.

And the holiday offers so many opportunities to serve.

Individuals lead the peace march during the MLK Day of Service event.
The 2024 MLK Day of Service held a peace march from Widener's campus to Chester City Hall.

Monday, Jan. 15 celebrates what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 95th birthday. I invite you to use the federal holiday not as a day off, but as a way to connect with the community around you by volunteering your time and talents to serve others. 

This year, Widener joined community partners in the annual Peace March and Day of Service here in Chester. The event brought together Widener students, faculty and staff and members of the Chester and greater DelCo communities for a fulfilling day that included a city beautification project, poetry readings, and community-building activities at the Downtown CAAT Center, where Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro stopped by to greet community members and participate in service activities.

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