Martin Luther King Jr.

In this file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C. He urged citizens to achieve greatness through volunteer service to others. Ahead of the Monday, Jan. 15, 75th Emmy Awards, the Television Academy listed King's speech as No. 6 on its top 75 moments in television history.

“Greatness is determined by service!” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We live in a culture that appears to value fame and celebrity over many other things. Our mass media focuses on celebrities on TV, radio, in print and online to attract and drive consumption. In our social media feeds, we both see and make posts designed to capture the attention of our audience. We measure our online impact by the number of followers we have, which points to our culturally influenced push to become more well-known and admired. Some of us might be hoping for a lucky break, which can be a catapult to sudden fame. But does being famous make someone great?

Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reminded by the life and legacy of Dr. King, that true greatness comes from service, and not from fame and celebrity. The call to service was a central part of Dr. King’s civil rights leadership, and this call continues to echo to us all today.

The holiday was established as a living memorial to Dr. King, and it is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service that encourages us to volunteer and serve to improve our communities.

Dr. King’s statement about greatness and service comes from a well-known sermon that he delivered called “The Drum Major Instinct.” In the sermon, which he gave in February 1968, he spoke about the instinct that people have, to want to lead from the front and to feel superior to others while doing so.

He challenged his listeners instead to focus on greatness through service. He pushed his audience to live lives of service, saying, “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service. … You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” He originally delivered this message to a Christian audience, but its meaning is relevant for a more universal audience, too.

When we engage in service it takes many forms. Our service may meet a tangible need, such as providing and serving food to people experiencing food insecurity, painting and repairing a senior center, or sorting clothing donations for a local shelter. Or our service may build human capital and connection through tutoring and mentoring a student or reduce social isolation by spending time with a homebound older adult.

Our service bridges barriers, creates solutions, empowers others, builds community and demonstrates the mutual responsibility we have to each other. In addition, our service also makes for a more peaceful community. When we serve our neighbors and community, we develop insights into the lives of others while building ties and connections that help us to appreciate our place and the people around us. And when we understand our community in this way, we will not allow our neighbors to be left behind.

Find a way to serve!

United Way of Lancaster County’s Get Connected volunteer site is a community resource that connects people who want to serve with organizations around Lancaster County that are looking for volunteers to fulfill a wide variety of roles. At the site you’ll find a variety of volunteer needs from around the area, and you’ll be able to sign up for updates as new needs are submitted.

Visit Get Connected at

Joel Janisewski is director of the volunteer center and community listening for United Way of Lancaster County.

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