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Martin Luther King Jr. Day Opportunities to Volunteer and Celebrate in Philadelphia

Honor the legacy of the civil rights leader with these events and service opportunities.


Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., pictured here giving a speech, is honored every January in Philadelphia and nationally. | Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In addition to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism and speeches in Washington D.C. and points further south, he did visit Philadelphia many times and had several meaningful connections to the area. On October 26, 1967 — mere hours before he delivered his “Other America” speech at the then-new Spectrum, part of rousing event that also included Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte and Nipsey Russell — King stopped by a junior high school to ask the children, What is your life’s blueprint?

Also know as the “Streetsweeper” speech, its words today are as impactful as they were 50-something years ago: “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”

This Monday, January 17th, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the national holiday designated to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader and to continue his work. In Philly at least, MLK Day has sprouted into a whole weekend of events including music, art, readings and more. Here are some of the ways you can get involved in continuing Dr. King’s mission:

Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service
Billed as the largest Dr. King Day event in the nation, the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service offers tons of opportunities to learn, build, clean and help on January 17th in the city and beyond. The very long list of events includes meal prep with Philabundance, clothing donations for the Bethesda Project (which assists Philadelphians currently experiencing homelessness), driving a van for the Ronald McDonald House Charities, helping the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children reopen school libraries and tons more opportunities to serve. Many of these organizations are always looking for volunteers, not just on Monday.

2022 Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend Celebration @ African American Museum in Philadelphia
This year, the AAMP offers a full weekend of family-oriented activities under the theme of Grassroots and Grand Strategies with the aim of highlighting “individual and collective efforts to promote equity, celebrate and facilitate generational advancement, and protect the mental and spiritual wellbeing of historically oppressed peoples.” Because of the pandemic, most of the events are virtual and museum admission will be drastically reduced. Things kick off on Friday with the Disruption Spotlight & Open Mic, an evening of music, poetry and more, curated by Nina “Lyrispect” Ball (6 p.m.). Saturday’s Learning through the Arts & Scavenger Hunt will have kids age 6-13 creating works of art and exploring the AAMP galleries (10 a.m. and noon). There are also two virtual events on Saturday: A discussion of the book In the Name of Emmett Till: How the Children of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle Showed Us Tomorrow with its author Robert H. Mayer and educator Rachel Nelson, and a screening of the film A King in the Wilderness, HBO’s award-winning 2018 documentary about the last years of MLK’s life. Sunday starts with the Virtual Transcribe-a-thon, a community service project that will help turn 18th and 19th century documents into searchable data files for use in education and research, and makes them for accessible to everyone. Later on Sunday is another virtual activity, Art + Activism, Then and Now, a public dialogue with visual artist Richard J. Watson and percussionist LaTreice Branson. Monday is the busiest day with another scavenger hunt for the kids, a workshop with youth mentors from Dreamline, and Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy through the Lens of Black Excellence and Achievement with the African American Children’s Book Project with Leah Henderson, author of The Magic in Changing Your Stars and One Shadow on the Wall. The weekend concludes with a voter registration drive, a keynote talk by Dr. Kenneth Scott of Beech Companies and live performances by local artists. January 14th-17th, African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street.

MLK Weekend @ Betsy Ross House
True, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came along about 200 years after Betsy, but the Betsy Ross House, like many local historical institutions, is tying in its programming with MLK Day anyway because themes justice and the struggle for freedom are timeless. This small but busy museum in Old City is offering free programming all weekend long, for kids and adults. On Saturday and Sunday, visitors can “meet” historical figure Rev. Richard Allen, “one of early America’s most influential Black leaders and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.” And from Saturday through Monday, you can hear “short, interactive stories of the contributions Black Americans have made throughout American history.” January 15th-17th, Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch Street.

MLK Day @ Eastern State Penitentiary
Every MLK Day, Fairmount’s historic prison hosts a lively reading of Dr. King’s famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. (“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”) In person or virtually, you can hear the letter recited live by students, educators, public officials, artists and activists. Also: music and art inspired by Martin Luther King and his legacy. Free, 1:30-3:30 p.m., no reservations required, Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue.

MLK Weekend @ National Liberty Museum
NLM will explore the way “Dr. King’s ideas and advocacy laid the groundwork for understanding the links between social and environmental justice.” You can learn about MLK’s life and legacy all weekend long. On Monday: Farmer Shawn will discuss “his work with Urban Creators and his personal journey with upcycling.” Visitors can take home their own DIY water filter. Included in museum admission of $6-$12, noon-3 p.m., National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut Street.

Philadelphia Orchestra’s Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts this edition of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual MLK Day concert, featuring violinist Amaryn Olmeda and speaker Charlotte Blake Alston. The program includes pieces by James Weldon Johnson, Valerie Coleman, Beethoven, Florence Price and more. Before the concert (at 11:30 a.m.), you can attend a live taping of the Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER podcast with host Tori Marchiony and interviewing President and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia Andrea Custis. The subject will be From Programming to Progress: Why Music Matters, panel discussion to follow. Free (but reserve your tickets), February 17th, 1 p.m., Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, 300 South Broad Street.

Selma @ Film Society
The Philadelphia Film Society presents a free screening of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-winning 2014 drama about Martin Luther King’s historic 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama. Free (reserve your ticket), 7 p.m., Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut Street.

MLK Day Family Program @ Woodmere Art Museum
The Germantown Avenue museum presents a virtual MLK program with the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble performing “the Music of the Civil Rights Movement.” Also: “Learn the story of his powerful “I Have A Dream Speech” through the art of Jerry Pinkney and the children’s book, A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, written by Barry Wittenstein.” Free, 2-3 p.m., Woodmere Art Museum, online only.

MLK Weekend @ Museum of the American Revolution
This weekend, visitors can enjoy Meet James Forten, a “first-person theatrical performance” about James Forten, who was a free black Philadelphian, a Revolutionary War veteran, an abolitionist and a businessman. Plus: We Shall Continue by the Philadelphia Jazz Project (online), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Promises of the American Revolution (online), Don Troiani’s painting Brave Men as Ever Fought, and more. $13-$19, January 15th-17th, Museum of the American Revolution, 101 South 3rd Street.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day @ the National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center celebrates MLK Day with music, a reading and more. Local actors will deliver a “passionate reading” of the “I Have a Dream” speech at 10:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Also: a performance by David and Jenny Heitler-Klevans of Two of a Kind along with Rodney Whittenberg entitled Family Concert: Songs of the Civil Rights Era. Plus: story corner, arts and crafts activities and more. Free (but reserve a time slot), 10 a.m.-5 p.m., National Constitution Center, 525 Arch Street.

More MLK Day Activities

Day of Service in Germantown: BYO broom, gloves and mask to this neighborhood cleanup in Germantown organized by Germantown United CDC, I Love Thy Hood, Friends of Germantown NW I Love Thy Hood and more. January 17th, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., 5700 Greene Street.

Day of Service @ Bartram’s Garden: Help tidy up the historic, 50-acre garden and farm in Southwest Philly — then watch MLK speeches and Ana DuVernay’s acclaimed documentary 13th. Register here, January 17th, 9:30-11:30 a.m., Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard.

Day-Off Camp @ the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education: Kids will participate in a MLK Day of Service project, while also learning about environmental artwork which “often improves an area environmentally and highlights a specific environmental and/or social issue.” $60-$70, January 17th, 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagy’s Mill Road.

Uhuru MLK Day Philly 2022: On Monday, the good people at Uhuru Movement — purveyors political literature and quality pre-owned furniture — are offering a virtual program of music, speeches and “historic films of the African community struggle for freedom and self-determination featuring MLK, Malcolm X, and more.” Plus training and info for an outdoor volunteer project. Free, January 17th, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles, online.