Service, justice mix

The University closed down for Martin Luther King Day for the first time ever this year.

But in keeping with the national holiday’s theme of service, hundreds of community-minded Penn people spent the day on volunteer projects organized by the MLK Holiday Committee and at an annual commemorative program.

The holiday committee’s three service projects — training tutors for the Philadelphia Reads program, painting banners with quotes from King, and a spruce-up project at Heston Elementary School — drew more than 220 participants.

“There were more people there than there was work to be done,” said Jack B. Lewis, assistant director of the African-American Resource Center, describing the crowd of volunteers at Heston.

Meanwhile, over at the Penn Tower Hotel, the keynote speaker at the annual MLK Commemorative Program and Symposium on Social Change told an audience of nearly 200 community members and Penn employees that a day of service was not enough to honor King’s memory.

Jeffrey Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, used a Biblical tale of idolatry as a jumping-off point to warn against idolizing either “ourselves and the service we render” or King himself. And doing community service without working for justice, he said, is “cleaning up the mess of injustice instead of addressing the injustice that created the dilapidated conditions to begin with.”

Leath’s remarks were in keeping with the program’s theme, “Power concedes nothing without struggle.” Before Leath delivered his speech, a local gospel choir sang spirituals, and after, members of the African American Association of Administrators, Faculty and Staff — the event’s sponsor — presented remarks and awards.

The real stars of the program, though, were the children. Many audience members, including West Philadelphia City Council Member Jannie Blackwell, seemed to have come specifically to see the young MLK essay contest winners. And at the program’s end, a dozen West Philadelphia children who had walked to Penn all the way from 58th and Kingsessing showed up, holding MLK quotes hand-lettered on posterboard. Their procession down the room’s center aisle drew a standing ovation.


Originally published on February 1, 2001