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Published: Tuesday, 1/20/2009

On inauguration eve, Obama heeds own call to do good works

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Paying tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama took time on the eve of his inauguration to roll up his shirtsleeves and put a fresh coat of paint on the walls of a shelter for homeless youth as his wife, Michelle, helped fill bags with toothpaste, lotion, and other supplies to be shipped to troops overseas.

The King holiday took on special meaning this year as the observance melded into the inaugural celebration for the first African-American president.

People found ways to honor both men through public service, which has long been the cornerstone of the King holiday.

Weeks ago, Mr. Obama called on Americans to find ways to help others on the holiday. With the help of his vast database of volunteers, more than 1 million people across America responded.

"The Internet is an amazing tool to organize people," Mr. Obama said.

"We saw that in the campaign, but we don't want to use it just in elections. We want to use it to rebuild America."

The number of volunteers this year was more than double last year's, according to Isaac Farris, president and chief executive officer of the King Center in Atlanta, and was the largest turnout since the holiday was first observed in 1986.

"We never wanted this holiday to be about hero worship," said Mr. Farris, who also is King's nephew. "If he were here, we would be the first person to say, 'Don't sit around on the King Holiday talking about how great I am. Get out and help someone.'"

Thousands of volunteers around the country marked the holiday yesterday by heeding Mr. Obama's call to service.

They picked up trash in Los Angeles, donated blood in Miami, chopped weeds in a forest preserve in Chicago, and fed the hungry in Olympia, Wash.

Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, predicted that millions of people would take part in service events yesterday.

"You don't have to have a PhD to serve," he said. "We know that a lot of us doing just a little can make a major contribution. The goal is to keep that going throughout the year."

Also yesterday, African-American leaders, joined by Mr. Obama's former Republic presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, held a summit at a Washington high school where they announced that they would take on education as the next major civil rights challenge.

Mr. McCain was a surprising ally, according to the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the organizers of yesterday's event.

Yet the senator has signed on with the Education Equality Project and will work with civil rights activists, education administrators, mayors, and other politicians to address disparities in public schools.

"There is no way we could work effectively to celebrate Dr. King's birthday than to make education the top civil rights issue of the 21st century," Mr. McCain said as the mostly black audience gave him a standing ovation.

"President Obama will work to unite us, and this issue is the most difficult issue that we face."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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