The third Monday in January has returned to remind us of the legacy of one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders at a time when we need it most.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federally recognized day of service, traditionally observed with nationwide service projects and volunteer opportunities. As AmeriCorps, the organization that oversees the national day of service, says, it’s “a day on, not a day off.”
But this year is different. Not only is the country dealing with an ongoing health crisis keeping the majority of Americans at home, but we also enter the new year on the heels of an intense cry for racial justice and healing seen in last summer’s movement for Black lives. You might not be able to get out to attend a service project this year, but you can still find ways to honor the work of activists present and past.
Joy Bivins, associate director of collections and research services at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, described this year’s commemoration and the current political moment as the right time to really understand King’s message and find creative ways to uplift Black communities in his honor.
“It’s a perfect time to revisit his philosophy and take advantage of the programs that are happening out there, that are interrogating who Dr. King was…within the context of what’s happening in our nation today,” Bivins said.
Here are a few ways to honor the legacy of King, his colleagues, and the activists building on his work, during a year when you can’t go out and march yourself.
Attend a virtual event or talk
Traditional service opportunities might not be possible this year, but many institutions are still hosting virtual commemorations.
Aaron Bryant, curator for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, says the museum’s programming is built on the framework of social justice and the fight for equality in line with King’s message. The museum has moved its annual celebration, A People’s Holiday, online. You can sign up to attend the event, featuring Grammy award-winner Christian McBride, here.
The King Center, a memorial and nonprofit established by Coretta Scott King, will host its annual Beloved Community Commemorative Service on the holiday (starting at 10.30 a.m. ET). You can register on eventbrite.
For the rest of the year, check out other programming by Black-led cultural organizations. The Schomburg Center, for example, hosts virtual events about Black culture and history every month. “That’s our bread and butter,” Bivins explained. The organization just hosted its annual Black Comic festival, and will continue cultural programming ahead of Black History Month. Check out the schedule here.
Donate to legal defense funds
Bivins explained that while many consider King only through his legacy of “peaceful protest,” he also had a “very robust interaction with the criminal justice system” — a history that continues in the unequal treatment of Black versus white protesters.
She recommends donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a leading nonprofit fighting for racial justice through litigation and advocacy, or supporting the Southern Poverty Law Center, which builds on the legal victories of the early civil rights movement.
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) arose prior to 1964 in response to systemic education inequality. With enrollment expected to increase this year, they represent safe spaces for Black students and award a significant portion of bachelor’s degrees held by Black students.
Bivins said that advocating for HBCUs honors spaces where “our activists and heroes are trained.” Call on your representative to support continued federal funding for these institutions.
Connect with community organizers and institutions
The fight for racial justice is ongoing and starts on the ground. Bivins recommends seeking out your local Black Lives Matter chapter and finding ways to support their work.
You can also donate to Black cultural institutions or support digital collection initiatives. The National Museum of African American History & Culture, for example, created a digital repository of stories from last year’s protest movement and invites others to share their stories to the online collection. It’s called and is still accepting submissions.
The museum’s curator Bryant understands King’s work as a fight for community, equity, and human dignity. He says it’s also the perfect moment to share small acts of community service that don’t require grand gesture or money — things like sharing food with community food banks, volunteering your time to assist a neighbor, or uplifting social justice conversations online.
Learn more about Dr. King’s activism
Take this day (week, month, or whole year, while you’re at it) to read up on King’s life. The holiday, proposed the year he was assassinated in 1968, was contentiously debated and wasn’t formally adopted by every state until 2000, Bivins explained.
Bivins says this history allows us to critique the glorification of King’s “peaceful movement” and the myth that he was widely beloved, something we’ve had to reconcile with this past year. “He was assassinated because he believed certain things. That idea — it makes us a bit uneasy,” Bivins said. “I think that uneasiness in wrestling with our nation’s history can be a challenge to some, but it is a worthwhile moment to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we like to see ourselves go.”
Both Bivins and Bryant recommend reading King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. “That’s the question we’ve been asking, this year and this week in particular,” Bryant said. “How do we become a national community?”