03/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Service on King Day and Beyond

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once posed what he called "Life's persistent and most urgent question." It was not about civil rights, justice, or peace. It was: "What are you doing for others?"

It has been more than four decades since America last heard that challenge from such a unique and powerful voice. We've seen great progress. And yet our society is still confronting many of the same challenges Dr. King faced -- the mountain of poverty in our cities, the epidemic of high school dropouts, the cycle of gangs and violence facing too many of our young people.

Dr. King understood that government alone couldn't solve these problems; that it would take citizens acting together. He challenged all Americans to join in building a more perfect union and said "everybody can be great because everybody can serve."

Those words ring as true as ever today. To confront our challenges, we need to renew America's spirit of service and civic action, of innovation and local initiative, and focus it more effectively on today's problems. And when better to start than on the day we honor Dr. King with a national holiday.

Congress passed legislation in 1994 to transform the King Holiday into a national day of service -- a day "on," not a day off. The concept has expanded every year since, exploding last January as President-elect Obama joined more than a million other Americans in volunteering in thousands of service projects across the country.

At that historic moment, Mr. Obama reminded the nation that we "could no longer view our own day-to-day cares and responsibilities as somehow separate from what was happening in the wider world." A day later, in his Inaugural Address, he called for a "new era of responsibility, a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world."

One of the fundamental beliefs of the administration, shared by bipartisan governors and mayors across the country, is that service isn't secondary or separate from achieving national priorities, its essential to achieving them. Government can't do the job alone, but government acting in partnership with citizens and the nonprofit and private sectors can make progress on many of our big challenges.

Our two organizations, the King Center and the Corporation for National and Community Service, have joined together with nonprofit and community groups, faith-based organizations, and schools and businesses nationwide to help Americans in every state turn King Day into a time not just to commemorate, but to commit to take action. Volunteers will be fixing parks, rebuilding schools, providing job counseling, feeding the hungry, immunizing children, and more.

Addressing long-seated social problems will take a sustained effort, and many organizations are using King Day to kick off service efforts that last throughout the year. Dozens of Mayors will launch Cities of Service plans to engage residents in neighborhood projects. Mentoring groups will train caring adults to provide ongoing guidance to youth at risk. Corporations will give time off to employees to share their professional skills with nonprofits. Classroom teachers will kick off semesters of service, integrating volunteering with academic instruction.

It is our hope that millions more volunteers, of all ages and backgrounds, will be inspired by Dr. King's legacy and find ways to honor Dr. King by emulating his lifelong commitment to and passion for serving others.

We need Americans to tutor young people who might otherwise drop out of school. To be a companion to a frail elderly citizen who will otherwise lose her independence and go into a nursing home. To help a young disabled veteran prepare his job resume.

On King Day and beyond, organizations and communities across the country need you -- your skills, your experience and your caring -- to make a meaningful difference in the lives of your fellow Americans.

Isaac Newton Farris, Jr. is President and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta and Dr. King's nephew. Stephen Goldsmith is Board Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, professor of government at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and former Republican mayor of Indianapolis. To find a volunteer opportunity in your community, visit