Obama's quantum leap in citizen service
By John Lewis and Harris Wofford
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Decades ago, each of us had the opportunity to work with Dr. Martin Luther King. After John Lewis was beaten on the bridge in Selma, we walked together with other peaceful protestors on the voting rights march to Montgomery.
Years later, we worked together in Congress as co-authors of the King Holiday and Service Act, because we knew that Martin would want a day in his honor to be more than a day of rest, recreation, and shopping. It needed to be a day of action; a day of working together to right wrongs; a day to realize the Dream he left us - the American dream of liberty and justice for all.
It is altogether fitting and proper that earlier this week we celebrated Martin's words on his day, because he inspired us all, but the greatest words are those that can be made flesh and turned into civic action. We wanted to send a message that we should honor him with our deeds.
We are delighted to see President Obama not only make service a centerpiece of the King holiday and his Inauguration, but the beginning of an enduring national commitment throughout the year. "I want this to be a central cause of my presidency," he said last year. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges."
On the day before he took the oath of office, our President and his family, along with the family of Vice President Biden, honored Dr. King's birthday by helping others in Washington neighborhoods. As part of the Renew America Together initiative, they called on the American people to join them, to follow them, and come together in shared purpose to tackle the great challenges we face.
While government has a vital role to play in helping our economy recover, we all have a responsibility to do what we can for our communities and fellow Americans in need.
That's why the Presidential Inaugural Committee has unveiled a new website (USAService.org) with tools to help Americans find volunteer opportunities or organize service projects of their own. There is also an online community to help them keep track of their commitment throughout the year. Log on and watch the President's call to service, General Colin Powell's passionate description of what service has meant to his life, and the way ordinary Americans are making extraordinary differences in the lives of their fellow citizens.
The President's plans for national service rightly include outreach to the armed forces. But you don't have to wear the uniform of your country to serve. You certainly don't have to work for the government or run for office to serve. You can help a child learn to read, or volunteer in a soup kitchen. You can clean up a park, or prepare care packages for our soldiers serving in harm's way. That simple commitment to enhance the lives of others is precisely what Dr. King meant when he said, "Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve."
Fifteen years ago, in support of the bipartisan King Holiday and Service Act, the Washington Post called service "the true legacy of Dr. King's life," and recalled his final sermon in Memphis:
"He said that maybe the man who fell among thieves was left behind by the two upstanding passers-by, because they were too busy. Or, he said maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual. Or maybe, they were afraid. The good Samaritan, the one who got down from his beast and gave assistance, asked himself: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'"
That was the right question then. And that is the question the President asks today with his new call to service. Our reply should be: Yes We Can.