Once again, the nation will pause on the 3rd Monday of January to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights activist, crusader for economic justice, and anti-war advocate. He’s become such a widely beloved figure that it’s easy to overlook how controversial he was in his time.
The government spied on Dr. King in an attempt to undermine his work. Leaders of both parties called him a traitor. It wasn’t just opponents of racial justice who found fault with him; when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, for example, the NAACP objected. For many years, the effort to create a holiday in his name faced stiff opposition at both the federal and state level.
Dr. King’s emergence in recent years as a universally admired icon reflects not only the power of his vision but also a desire for transcendent heroes in this time of political partisanship and social media silos. Our divisions are real and can’t be wished away. Yet we shouldn’t let them define us or dominate our day-to-day lives because in North Carolina and across the country, there is a palpable hunger for unity.
To help fulfill that hunger, we should embrace one essential aspect of Dr. King’s philosophy: his belief in service. Indeed, the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act calls on Americans to recognize the holiday by participating in a day of citizen action and volunteer service. As Dr. King said, “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace.”
This weekend, to honor the legacy of Dr. King, a diverse group of North Carolinians will gather in Princeville. These volunteers will join organizations from around the state—including Veterans for American Ideals, The Mission Continues, Islamic Relief USA, the Conference of the United Methodist Church, Service Year NC, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Travis Manion Foundation—to help their fellow North Carolinians rebuild their community in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The oldest town incorporated by African-Americans in the United States, Princeville has faced many challenges in recent years. Like Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Hurricane Matthew left over 80 percent of the town’s homes underwater in October 2016. Soon after the skies cleared, the NC Conference of the United Methodist Church got to work. It made a long-term commitment to assist in the rebuilding process, serving as a coordinating agency for volunteer groups that have come from far and wide to help families find their way back home.
That kind of sustained support is crucial. When disaster strikes, we cross the proverbial tracks to lend a hand to those we might never otherwise interact with. But all too often, our attention recedes before the rebuilding can take hold. More than two years after Hurricane Matthew, the news spotlight has shifted elsewhere, but many of the people and organizations who were there on day one will be there over the holiday, committed to seeing this work through.
Although the two of us both served in the military out of Camp Lejeune, we met as veterans, bonding over our shared desire to continue to serve our country, and we’ll do just that in Princeville. Join us and you’ll find a Muslim woman working shoulder-to-shoulder with a Methodist pastor, students pitching in alongside seniors.
The commemoration of Dr. King’s life and legacy is at its core a call to care for each other. We must be our sister’s and our brother’s keeper. In the final speech of his life, in Memphis, Dr. King challenged the audience to “be concerned about your brother…. Either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
Jason DuVall is a Navy veteran and associate pastor at the United Methodist Church, Lake Gaston Charge. Scott Cooper is a Marine Corps veteran and the founder and Director of Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First.