Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was this past Monday, Jan. 17. The federal holiday is unlike most other holidays and for many reasons.

Joe Rafferty Courtesy photo

For starters, the fight for this holiday to be nationally recognized was long and difficult. Although the effort started nearly right after the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it took well over a decade for this day to become a holiday.

Another factor that makes this day so special is that it is a nationally recognized “day of service.”

Lastly, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day remains a reminder for all of us to stay vigilant in the fight for equality and justice in our great country. For all of these reasons, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the history of this day, some ways you can honor Dr. King’s legacy by serving your community, and to share some of the good work we’ve done in Maine to protect our right to vote.

Just four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated, Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers introduced the first bill that would establish a federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. This was, of course, in 1968. Unfortunately, Rep. Conyers was unsuccessful at the time, and the effort languished for years. However, Rep. Conyers would not give in. Again and again, year after year, he would introduce the same bill, gather cosponsors time and again until finally, his persistence paid off.

On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday, beginning in 1986. This became the first federal holiday honoring an African American and is observed on the third Monday in January, in honor of King’s birthday on Jan. 15.

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As I mentioned earlier, MLK Day is observed as a national day of service. It is often referred to as “a day on, not a day off.” Even though the day has passed, I would encourage you all to give back to your community when you can this month to commemorate and honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy.

Now, I understand how difficult it can be to serve your community while COVID-19 keeps its grip on us all, but there are still ways each of us can give back. AmeriCorps has created a helpful tool to help us identify local volunteer opportunities available in Maine and all over the country. To use the tool, visit https://americorps.gov/newsroom/events/mlk-day, click “Find Volunteer Opportunities” and enter your zip code to see what projects are available near you.

Recently, you may have seen that the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. is calling for “no celebration” of MLK Day without the passage of voting rights legislation to put pressure on D.C. lawmakers to pass voting rights bills that have stalled in Congress. Let this serve as a reminder to us all that the fight for equality is still ongoing. While we have made progress, we still have some roads before us in this most important effort. Just last year in Maine, my colleagues and I rejected efforts to suppress your right to vote. In fact, we passed a measure that makes it easier to cast your ballot securely.

I believe democracy is at its best when everyone can participate. That’s why we made many of the state’s measures to make voting accessible and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as secure drop-off boxes for absentee ballots permanent. Maine also joined 40 other states by passing a law allowing Mainers to register to vote online. Online voter registration reduces the cost on our towns and election administrators and frees up time for our clerks to do what they do best: administer safe and secure elections.

Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me to represent you in Augusta. Please do not hesitate to reach out should you need my assistance. You can send me email at [email protected] or reach me by phone at 207-590-9902. If you want to stay even more up-to-date on what we’re working on in Augusta, sign up for my newsletter at mainesenate.org. You can also find helpful winter resources that my office has compiled all in one place at www.mainesenate.org/2021-winter-resources.

Joseph Rafferty is a member of the Maine State Senate representing District 34, Acton, Kennebunk, Lebanon, Moody, North Berwick, Wells, West Lebanon and part of Berwick. He can be reached at [email protected]

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