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January 19, 2015

March for justice, service projects highlight MLK Day

'Not about a march. It’s really about a movement'

For Rev. Mark Tyler, there might not be a more appropriate time to march on Martin Luther King Day than now, when controversial, police-involved killings of black individuals remain in the public consciousness. 

Some 10,000 people are expected to march through Center City at 1:30 p.m. as part of a demonstration intended to honor King by shining light on contemporary issues of racial injustice. 

“When you think about his work and what he’s most known for, it was his civic activism,” said Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church and one of the march’s organizers. “This is an attempt to honor that part of Dr. King and his legacy.”

Elsewhere, another 135,000 people are expected to participate in the 20th annual Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service, an event that includes 1,800 volunteer projects across the region.

That coordinated effort – the largest in the country – again anticipates a record number of volunteers. But the march might draw the most attention.

The demonstrators are marching in the name of racial justice, seeking to continue the national conversation sparked by the events in Ferguson, Mo. They are calling for an end to stop-and-frisk policing, an independent police review board, the right to unionize, a $15 minimum hourly wage and enhanced education funding.

“That’s the banner that we’re marching under,” Tyler said. “Our hope is that we help people recognize that it’s not about a march. It’s really about a movement.”

The march was organized by a coalition of religious leaders, labor unions, grassroots groups and students, all of whom sought to collaborate following recent demonstrations in the city. 

Dubbed the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment (MLK DARE), the group will gather at the School District of Philadelphia administration building and begin marching south on Broad Street. The marchers then will head east on Market Street and culminate their rally at Sixth Street around 3:30 p.m.

“We’re planning for 10,000,” said Tyler, noting the march has been promoted throughout social media. “If the numbers go well above 10,000, I will not be in the least bit surprised.”

Todd Bernstein, founder and president of Global Citizen, intends to join the march, but he also has quite a task of his own. 

His organization hosts the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service, which began with 1,000 volunteers in 1996 and has grown to become the largest coordinated effort in the country. 

About 1.2 million volunteers have participated over the years, Bernstein said. And the numbers keep rising.

“Last year we had 125,000,” Bernstein said. “The year before that it was 115,000. It has grown every single year.”

This year’s event celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting. 

The signature project will take place at Girard College, where 5,000 volunteers will construct “Vote Here” signs in various languages, paint murals celebrating the Voting Rights Act, train students to work at polling places and assist with a North Philadelphia voter registration effort.

“Dr. King was a man of action, an enemy of apathy,” Bernstein said. “I think it’s fitting that tens of thousands of people throughout the region are celebrating his legacy by turning their concerns about pressing community challenges into citizen action.”

The event also will feature a job fair, civic engagement expo and a health and wellness fair. To conclude the projects at Girard College, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform its 25th annual MLK tribute concert at 1:30 at the campus chapel.