Against the backdrop of “two pandemics” — COVID-19 and “inequity and racism that has plagued society for centuries” — scores of volunteers embarked on a day of service Monday to honor the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
City Year Chicago’s version of what has become a national day of service included three specific projects: distributing 300 laptops to students at three Chicago Public Schools to help bridge the digital divide; packing up donated school supplies at Wintrust Arena and a school mural project that allowed AmeriCorps members to “virtually participate” from the safety of their homes.
Myetie Hamilton, executive director of City Year Chicago, kicked off the virtual program by talking about the extraordinary year that has seen the nation confront “two pandemics.”
Her voice breaking, Hamilton then recalled King’s famous “mountain top” speech, which he delivered in Memphis on April, 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.
“The nation is sick and there is trouble in the land. Confusion all around. But, I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can we see the stars,” Hamilton said, quoting King. She continued, quoting from the speech: “In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored people of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Phenomenally Black,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx spoke about what she called a “moment in history” unlike any other — “from the devastation of COVID-19 … to the re-awakening and amplification of the issue of race that is not new.”
Foxx lamented the mob that attacked the Capitol, calling them “those who would seek to hold to white supremacy so strong that they would scale walls and break windows to deny the opportunity for us to live up to the values that this country has always aspired to.”
She added: “This moment in history is ready for those among us to step up and lead. That is why the work of City Year is so important.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the challenges of Black Americans as articulated by Dr. King are “different than they were 50 years ago, but no less daunting.”
“Systemic racism remains real, as does poverty, access to health care and the need for hope. All of these fault lines have been displayed vividly over the last year,” the mayor said.
Thanking the volunteers who stepped up to serve on Monday and throughout the pandemic, Lightfoot also quoted King: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree. You only have to have a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
“Over 50 years later, Dr. King’s message is still speaking to us, particularly in this moment. For all the pain and sacrifice we’ve experienced over this past year, one of the things we’ve gained is a broader understanding of what public service means as well as recognition of its urgency,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton closed by using, yet another of the civil rights leader’s quotes to inspire the scores of young people participating in the national day of service. As King said, Stratton recalled: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Stratton concluded: “Be great today in the way that you smile towards those that you serve. Be great today in the way that you show up and extend a hand to a friend or even a stranger. Be great today in being the best human being that you can be. Then, move out of your own way and witness the power of service.”