Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Martin Luther King Day

Dean Trulear


January 18, 2008
More than 20 years ago, Rev. Charles Adams, pastor of the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, warned of the danger of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration. Adams, who was president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, King’s denomination, was concerned that by honoring King with a holiday the radical vision of his dream could be domesticated. “It is easier to celebrate a dead hero,” offered Adams, “than to follow a living presence.”

Many, including former U.S. civil rights attorney and senator from Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford, rose to the challenge to orchestrate the observance of a “day on” instead of a “day off” to recognize the Baptist minister whose preaching and ministry led a generation through tremendous change in our nation. And each year since King’s birthday was set aside as a national holiday, more and more people across the country have invested in a “Day of Service” on  projects to make our communities better and stronger.

One such project, developed by the National Alliance of Faith and Justice (NAFJ), is Justice Sunday, celebrated the day before the holiday. Justice Sunday is used by a growing number of churches and faith-based organizations to launch yearlong initiatives that advance the peace-making mission of social change embodied by King and his followers in the Civil Rights Movement.

NAJF began as a faith-based caucus within the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice (NABCJ), a caucus concerned about the effects of crime and incarceration in the black community. NABCJ member Warren Dolphus, a long-time chaplain in the federal prison system, organized the caucus in the belief that people of faith could make a difference in the “prevention, consequences and resolution” of criminal behavior and its “effects on the most vulnerable stakeholders” of our society.

Dolphus, who passed away in 2007, and his wife, federal corrections official Adie Richburg, now NAJF’s president, expanded their network to include community leaders who shared their vision. Justice Sunday has become their symbolic remembrance of King’s legacy. But it is what issues from Justice Sunday that keeps NAFJ and its partners from succumbing to the malady that Rev. Adams warned against.

Justice Sunday launches a major yearlong initiative. It is an annual essay-writing contest for youth in grades 5 through 12 who are invited to write on behaviors that mitigate criminal behavior. Students are encouraged to write essays about and make commitments to avoid the dangers of truancy, bullying, drug and alcohol use, and criminal acts while extolling the virtues of non-violent behavior, conflict resolution, and community service.

Entitled “Operation Pen or Pencil: B.U.S. Boycott,” the essay contest engages students in a constructive thought process, leading to alternative life styles that offer rewards for a life of service and commitment. B.U.S. stands for Building Unbalanced Systems, and Pen or Pencil refers to the choice between the PENitentiary and the PENCIL (education).

Public schools in High Point, North Carolina are implementing the B.U.S. Boycott this year in their neighborhoods through the Communities in Schools project. The Progressive National Baptist Convention has also adopted the NAFJ initiative, the first historically black denomination to do so.

But this work is not only for the black community. Wofford, a primary motivator for the King Day of Service, is a white man who demonstrated his commitment through his service in the U.S. civil rights office in the 1960s and by preparing for that service by attending law school at historically black Howard University—the same school that produced the late Thurgood Marshall.

This weekend, be sure to take a “day on” and not a “day off.” It is a matter of national urgency.
— Harold Dean Trulear, Prof. of Practical Theology
    Howard University Divinity School

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”