Philly MLK Jr. Day of Service to focus on voting rights, U.S. Census

By: - January 9, 2020 6:30 am

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — In celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service will highlight the role of African-American women in the suffrage movement and other voting–related themes.

The annual event, which takes place Jan. 20, the official federal holiday, is expected to draw upwards of 150,000 volunteers who will participate in more than 1,800 community service projects across the region.

Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the event and president of Global Citizen announced the theme, “Voting Rights Then & Now — the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the Role of Black Women in the Suffrage Movement and the Importance of Being Counted in the 2020 U.S. Census,” at a press conference at Girard College on Wednesday.

Girard College serves as the regional hub for the event.

“It’s crucial that we know history. Not only were Black men and women not afforded that right [to vote], but I thought it was critical that we understand that while celebrating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, it must be pointed out that it was just some women who got that right to vote.

“Black men and women were consciously excluded at the same time. But so many women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells we fully engaged on the front lines,” Bernstein continued. “We know that there wasn’t real parity achieved until the 1965 Civil Rights Act. And there continue to be measures and efforts made to deny the right to vote to Black and Brown people.”

The leaders of the Day of Service also presented the 22nd annual Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award to the Urban Affairs Coalition.

“We must embrace Dr. King’s legacy of civic engagement, not just on King Day but every single day,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, who is a 2020 Day of Service co-chairman. “When we give back to our communities, our entire city benefits. That was one of the lessons of Dr. King. This year’s recipient embodies that by serving the community with compassion and dedication all year long.”

Urban Affairs Coalition President and CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner, also a 2020 Day of Service co-chairwoman, accepted the award for the organization, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Matlock-Turner said that the day of service is crucial in that it brings together people and organizations who don’t normally interact.

“That’s what this is ultimately all about, collaborating and coalition building,” she said. “It is so easy for us to stay in our individual tribes. The real work comes when we come outside of the comfort of our groups and reach out across the aisle, much like Dr. King left his church and visited a synagogue or a mosque and said, ‘Tell me your story. How can we all work together to build something bigger?’”

Wednesday’s event also featured the unveiling of student mural that will be hung in Girard College on the Day of Service. The 36-foot-long mural was completed by students from six area schools and artists from the city’s Mural Arts program.

The national King Day of Service was created in 1994 through federal legislation co-authored by former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., both veterans of the civil rights movement. Wofford died in 2019, at the age of 92, on the Day of Service. Lewis, 79, announced last month that he has been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

“This will be our first King Day of Service without Harris Wofford, who sadly died last King Day,” Bernstein said. “But instead of mourning his loss, we will celebrate Harris’ remarkable legacy of public service and giving on the King Day of Service.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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