I’m not sure when Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a day of service. Frankly, up until a few years ago, I considered the federal holiday another day off of work and usually went to the movies or something. I felt I’d honored Dr. King at other times of the year, so why bother with this “special” day whose slogan, “A Day On, Not a Day Off,” had become somewhat cliched.
To be certain, Dr. King is worthy of such a holiday and worthy of the national memorial being constructed in Washington, D.C. As a native Georgian raised in the Atlanta area, I grew up hearing and reading stories of his speeches, his work and his assassination at age 39. But the holiday just wasn’t that personal to me. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean.
That meaning became clearer a few years ago, as I was living with my mother in Athens, Ga., while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Georgia. A family friend, Karl Scott, had contacted my mother, Linda Davis, about the Brooklyn Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair.
The cemetery, located behind Clarke Middle School, dates back to 1882 and had been a cultural landmark for working-class African-Americans who lived on the city’s west side. A restoration and beautification effort began in 2006, with the goal of uncovering, marking and tagging graves.
By the time my mother became involved and enlisted me to help document the restoration — through photographing and digitally recording various work days and even wielding a lopper or two — some of the history of those buried there had been uncovered by Meriwether Rhodes, an amateur genealogist who had spent countless hours researching and interviewing family members of the deceased. That history also includes some of my ancestors — graves unmarked, locations unknown in the way that happens when money is too scarce for permanent markers and memories begin to fade.
So I found myself at the cemetery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007 for HandsOn Northeast Georgia’s day of service. And I thought about my ancestors. And I thought about the notion of service. Then, I thought about what it means to be a servant as God has called me to be. There is a difference in being something and doing something. And when the project became personal, as this one did, that difference became real. The meaning of the King holiday became real. I was becoming something — a servant.
I can’t claim to know what drives others to serve at the cemetery work site. But for me, it is about being a servant to those who made my life possible — including my mother, whose life is dedicated to being a servant. To be a servant, for me, is to fulfill Scripture (Colossians 3:23-24). To be a servant, for me, is to fulfill a part of God’s purpose. To serve on a day we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helps me make meaning out of something that had little or none.