Commentary: Martin Luther King and national service

MLK statue at Morehouse College. Photo: Thomson200
By Linda Stamato

Martin Luther King’s dream of equality began in the volunteer work he did with fellow Morehouse students in 1944 and 1947, when they came up from Atlanta to work on tobacco farms in the Farmington Valley of Connecticut.

That work helped shape his worldview and prompted “an inescapable urge to serve society,” he said, opening to him a world beyond the Jim Crow segregated South he knew all too well.

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

King was hardly alone in imagining an important role for national service in America.

President John F. Kennedy, for example, called on his fellow Americans to embrace civic action and public service, asking them “not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” With bipartisan support, he provided the means–the Peace Corps–for them to answer.

Richard Nixon created SeniorCorps. Jimmy Carter helped establish–and personally, to this day, supports–Habitat for Humanity.

George H.W. Bush invested in volunteer organizations as “points of light,” Bill Clinton gave life, and support, to AmeriCorps; George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps. Barack Obama, calling on Americans to “ground our politics in the notion of a common good,” continued the tradition.

President Biden included a $1 billion federal investment in AmeriCorps  in the stimulus measure passed earlier this year. And there is a proposal in his Executive Order on Climate Change  to create a Civilian Climate Corps  to provide training and jobs to help “conserve and restore the nation’s lands and waters” and address “the changing climate.”

As important as presidential leadership has been, though, government programs alone are not enough. Colleges and universities, in partnership with government, can and should build a robust capacity for young people to participate.


Americans would like to see a national service program for young people.
As early as 2017, the Gallup organization reported that 49 percent of the American public supports mandatory service for all men and women.

Students from New York’s Mather High School in 2022 helped restore a bridge built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps at Jockey Hollow in the Morristown National Historical Park. Photo by Mikayla Rovenolt

The New York Times asked readers in 2019, “Do you think one year of public service should be mandatory for all Americans?”  Some 73 percent said yes.  (Only 12 percent said no and 15 percent didn’t know.)

A recent poll  found that 77 percent of adults surveyed support federal legislation to expand national service programs, including “overwhelming support from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (93 percent), as well as a strong majority of Republicans and leaners (59 percent), and 73 percent of independents who lean toward neither” party.

The foundation for a renewed effort lies in the nation’s colleges and universities.


Why not create a National Service Corps program, similar to the Reserve Officers Training Corps, ROTC, on every campus where ROTC exists? There are 1700 of them.

The National Service Corps could offer scholarships and special training to students in exchange for their work in service and provide and support programs to forgive student loans and provide other incentives—tuition remission, scholarship support, stipends, hiring preferences–for young people so that they can serve in areas of greatest need without undue personal sacrifice.

MLK statue at Morehouse College. Photo: Thomson200

The Cooperative Extension Service of the United States Department of Agriculture  could provide a structure as well. Land Grant colleges are its partners, as are historically Black colleges, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions.

Federally funded campus programs have been active in areas such as food safety and quality, revitalizing rural America through sustainable agriculture and waste management, and strengthening the social, economic and environmental well-being of families, communities and agriculture enterprises.

Opportunities for national service that receive public support, such as the PeaceCorps, Vista, and AmeriCorps, and those that receive substantial public support, such as Teach for America, and the yet-to-be funded Civilian Climate Corps, are likely partners.

There are also state programs to explore—and expand—in partnership with colleges and universities.

With more federal money, encouragement from the White House, and philanthropic dollars, and a likely key partner in the Corporation for National and Community Service,  the umbrella for national service programs, we have the basic infrastructure to flesh out and build capacity in local and global organizations to use the time, talents, idealism and creativity of citizen students.


As Martin Luther King came to understand, national service provides Americans from different regions and diverse backgrounds opportunities to come together in common purpose, uniting those who can afford to serve and those who have little option but to serve.

The call of military service currently falls on a concentrated group of Americans, and has since the draft ended in 1973. At present, only 1 percent of the total U.S. population fights the nation’s wars.

A commitment to serve for all young men and women, with options to choose how to serve, could broaden participation in—and increase the fairness of—military service.

Institutionalizing service as a national responsibility is less about “charity” and more about a kind of reciprocity. Young people can “earn” their citizenship, as noted, perhaps to cultivate future vocations–and certainly, to discover service as a way to  improve the lives of others while adding value to their own.

In his funeral oration, in 431 BC, Pericles said to the citizens of Athens:

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”

National Service can provide a means to that noble end.


Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a Faculty Fellow there as well. Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.

Opinions expressed in commentaries are the authors’, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.


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  1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, “Tired of it all.” Execution, of course, is always the rub, isn’t it? And, you’re so right, the details of the program—and, no doubt, there would be many variations—need to be worked out and modified as they are implemented and the results analyzed. I agree that “drafting” unwilling individuals is not a wise move; providing opportunities is the better route. One of the primary reasons for continuing to advance the idea has to do with interviews I’ve had with those who have served, primarily in the Peace Corps, although not exclusively. Beyond what they were able to contribute in their years of commitment—two years, usually, but some extended the time—the impact on their own lives—in their choice of occupations particularly and in the quality of their lives—provides ample reason to continue to advocate for national service.

  2. National Service sounds like a wonderful idea and like many great ideas, it is the execution that is the difficult part. I am a veteran and served with draftees in the early part of my three decades of service. The other side of the great idea was that draftees themselves who did not like being draftees or serving could be problematic. Think about it, would you want your life in the hands of someone who hated what they were doing and wanted to get out of what they were doing?
    The idea of a single year might work for basic laborer tasks but many/most require some training and familiarization before the new person is of much use so it would need to be more like two or more years. I do like your idea of an ROTC-like training option but how many years of service commitment are you suggesting as payback? ROTC generally requires five years of payback and it can be double that for high demand/high payoff training such as aviation.