Martin Luther King Jr. Day used to be just another vacation day for St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. But on Monday, hundreds of students at the all-girls high school joined other volunteers in the school’s gymnasium to help redefine an ever-evolving holiday.
For the second time in as many years, St. Mary’s has made the federal commemoration of King’s birthday an occasion for mandatory student service and opened its campus to volunteers with the United Way of the Greater Triangle. Once inside, sorority sisters, community advocates and students prepared meals, blankets and educational materials for people in need.
“This is a day of service. This is a day to show who you are to the community,” said Kennedy Byrd, 14, of Cary. She came with the Capital City Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an African-American family organization.
In all, United Way counted some 2,200 volunteers in dozens of events and projects across Durham, Johnston, Orange and Wake counties on Monday. For example, volunteers weeded and beautified the Chapel Hill Freedom House Recovery Center’s garden; counted inventory at the Durham Economic Resource Center, and built trails for the Triangle Land Conservancy Center.
United Way has been organizing the increasingly popular event for 10 years. The idea of service in King’s name was enshrined in the federal King Holiday and Service Act of 1994.
“On this particular day, I think it’s important for us to show love and caring,”said Peggy Credle, 58, of Cary, who had just finished trimming a blanket in pink and green, the colors of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (she had come with the local Sigma Tau Omega chapter).
To some – including the late Coretta Scott King – volunteerism represents the unity that Martin Luther King sought as he led a multiracial alliance for legal equality, including universal voting rights, across races. They walked unarmed into brutal punishment by government and white civilians, the resulting images stirring the country’s conscience.
Later, King pushed for economic assistance for poor communities, and for international peace.
“An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity,” King said in an undated quote relayed by his widow.
Yet it wasn’t long ago that unity was a rhetorical weapon used against King. In 1981, the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina stood against the creation of Monday’s holiday. Denouncing King as a “deeply troubling symbol of divided society,” Helms temporarily (and infamously) blocked the federal legislation.
At St. Mary’s, in the heart of the city where Helms lived and died, students and teachers used King’s day to acknowledge those divisions in society – but here they were a topic for introspection, not something to fear. After the blankets were woven and the soup mix packaged, students gathered to watch a documentary and talk about racial biases and the concept of privilege.
The independent Episcopal school wants students to be “culturally cognizant,” said Ann Bonner-Stewart, a chaplain for St. Mary’s. In other words, students are encouraged to talk about how unconscious biases, and inherited advantages, can shape life in Raleigh.
“If we’re not educating students about the way privilege manifests in our lives – it’s like not teaching math,” Bonner-Stewart said.
Dawn Blagrove, an organizer for Jack and Jill, said the children in her group also are learning what role they might play. The chapter saw the film “Selma” on Sunday and seemed to take away the idea that young and old alike can push for change.
“There were children and teenagers on the front lines of the civil rights movement,” Blagrove said. “That empowers them.”
And with the topics of race and poverty again near the center of American life, some families’ conversations will continue beyond the third Monday of January.
“This is an excellent opportunity to come together,” said Bailey Ham, 17, student body president for St. Mary’s. “But it’s not just on this day.”