How a Holiday Became an Annual Movement, and What you can Learn From it

On Monday, January 16, countless people across the country are expected to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in service to their communities.

But that wasn’t always the case.

So how did the holiday grow so rapidly into massive movement of civic engagement?

After a significant struggle, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday was signed into law in 1983 and first observed in 1986. Later, in 1994, Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service, appointing the Corporation for National & Community Service, a federal agency, to lead the effort.

Soon more organized initiatives began popping up across the country to mobilize diverse volunteer efforts. Today the day is widely known as “a day on, not a day off” that its proponents dreamed it would be.

What can you learn from this impressive movement to help you effect change and inspire action within you own community?

Here are some of key elements we think contributed to the movement’s growth.

The date and its meaning were already on people’s minds.

The MLK Day of Service movement built upon an established foundation of shared ideals, a powerful history, and a date already printed on standard calendars.

Even before the federal holiday was established on the third Monday of January, many already celebrated Dr. King’s birthday on January 15th.

There’s a lot to be said about overcoming people’s inertia by organizing around something that’s already familiar.

There’s a clear connection between the holiday and the effort.

When Coretta Scott King testified before Congress to have the MLK federal holiday designated a day of humanitarian service, she quoted one of Dr. King’s famous statements:

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

There is a clear and obvious link between Dr. King’s legacy and encouraging people to engage in community service that breaks down barriers and builds a land where people live in peace, dignity and equality.

People persevered.

Dedicated organizers across the country persevered year after year to grow the movement. (And before them, dedicated people persevered year after year to have the federal holiday recognized to begin with!)

The Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, the nation’s largest MLK Day event, started with only 1,000 volunteers in 1996. Now, over 20 years later, that number has grown to 140,0000!

This was certainly not a one-and-done event.

The movement is bigger than any one organization or person.

A broad coalition has collaborated to make the MLK Day of Service a success.

While some organizations directly connect volunteers with a wide range of service opportunities, large-scale organizers like the Corporation for National & Community Service and the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service also provide resources and tools to help other groups get their own projects off the ground and spread the word.

By working together, organizations can reach a wider audience — and benefit from each other’s areas of expertise.


The MLK Day of Service offers a number of insights into mobilizing action and raising awareness to effect change. How can you put this to work by tweaking it for your own community?

One obvious way would be to organize your own MLK Day of Service effort, geared toward the issue your organization addresses that make the nation a more just place.

But can other holidays throughout the year be used to inspire action, too?


One successful example is the Giving Tuesday movement, an effort that encourages people to break out their wallets to do good while their credit cards are still warm from Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

For more tips on making the most of Giving Tuesday, check out the Cyber Tuesday episodes of our Driving Participation podcast, including Episode 28 – Starting a Movement and Building Momentum and Episode 83 – Evolving #GivingTuesday.

Remember that it’s easier to gain traction around a date that’s already well established. And there should be a clear link between the holiday and your effort — like candy and cavities, the connection between National Brush Day on November 1st and Halloween the day before.

You can listen to our conversation with Abigail Quesinberry’s about her work with the Ad Council to create National Brush Day here.

Our other favorites include the American Heart Association’s multiple efforts in February that ride the tide of Valentine’s Day, like National Wear Red Day. Another great one is the Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Grave Digger’s Ball, which ties into Halloween to raise funds for the National Historic Landmark.

(Of course, if establishing an entirely new holiday in its own right is part of your mission, don’t let us stop you. Someone had to push for the creation of the MLK federal holiday to begin with!)

Don’t be discouraged if your first year starts small. Look for other organizations that might make logical partners, and keep at it. Soon your audience will begin to remember you each year as the day approaches! Consistent work over time pays off — often better than a big splash at the outset does.

Finally, there’s never better spokespeople than your own supporters. Get them involved to move you forward.


For more information, check out the following Driving Participation Podcasts, including transcripts and links to the audio recordings on iTunes:

Episode 13 – Turning Online Events into a Party for your Cause

Episode 17 – The Real Reach of Social Media with Abigail Quesinberry

Episode 22 – Manufacturing Viral Campaigns

Episode 28 – Starting a Movement and Building Momentum

Episode 79 – A #GivingTuesday Resource Roundup from our Podcast Guests

Episode 83 – Evolving #GivingTuesday

Episode 87 – Mastering Online Social Fundraising Using Content Marketing

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