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The King Monument in Washington D.C. (Photo by Eric Easter)

This year, way too many people wanted to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

In a morning meeting of parents from the elite private Potomac School inMcLean, Virginia, Arun Gupta, an investment banker, gives his report on the response to the school’s sign-up for Martin Luther King Day activities, which Gupta coordinates. With only some variation in numbers, it’s the same report he’s given for the last seven years: “Once again, we are over-subscribed.”

That means demand for the school’s coveted100 slots to volunteer with the organization City Year is higher than can be accommodated, leaving at least 40students and their parents unable to join a volunteer project.  On the holiday, the lucky 100, and more than 800 others, mostly from wealthy sections of Washington, D.C. and its even wealthier suburbs, descended on Ballou Senior High, located in southeast D.C., one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods.

There, they got an earful of speeches from local officials, ate bagels, drew pictures and packed bags for the homeless or performed minor cosmetic improvements to neighboring schools and playgrounds. Ballou itself was not part of this effort. It recently re-opened after an$85-million renovation and now rivals the facilities of many of the private schools the volunteers attend.

This scene was duplicated in cities across America, with millions of volunteers participating in“ A Day On, Not a Day Off”  celebrations to mark the King holiday. This year, President Barack Obama and his family chose the same City Year event in Washington as their project, boosting its popularity.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service grew out of a bill sponsored by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Senator Harris Wofford, D-Pa., and later signed by President Bill Clinton in1994. Obama further popularized the day by making it an official program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Yet despite this event’s connection to Obama and its origins with the iconic John Lewis, a King associate and civil rights legend in his own right, a small but growing number of observers see this focus on service as“ off the mark” from the way King should be remembered.

For Traci Miller, a Maryland real-estate developer who spent the holiday attending forums on justice, the focus on painting schools, planting gardens and traveling to poor neighborhoods without an extended commitment is “an erosion of the King potency to make people feel better.”

“Men don’t get assassinated because they dream and advocate for service,” says Miller. “King was pushing for wealth transference at the end of his life and an end to the War just prior to that. Actual equality based on the whole human person (not just race or social status) was his purpose. That is a dangerous and obviously deadly position on which to stand in the United States. He wanted to topple and transform the power, wealth, poverty, injustice paradigm.”

Georgetown University law professor Christopher Alan Chambers, who spent the day with his own family in quiet reflection, agrees that while service is laudable, it should not evolve into the holiday’s central theme. “His legacy was about challenging a terrible status quo, leadership and sacrifice. That’s what all Americans should be thinking about. But my kid and other kids, even college students, are told — often by Black teachers and leaders, but mostly by Whites — that service must be the component, and learning about the man and his struggles is secondary. seem to be motivated about the service thing and are fed the Saint Martin mythology, rather than the truth about protests and the daunting sacrifices and compromises he had to make. I’m no revolutionary. I just want to pay homage in the most appropriate way.”

Vince Brown, a Washington, D.C. DJ and music critic, thinks the day should be one of direct protest. “How about an occupation of D.C. and demand for food and housing for all, re-distribution of wealth and an end to war?” he said. “That was what Dr. King was about to lead the week he was assassinated. Anything less is falling short of the vision he had.”

These opinions reflect a growing concern in both scholarly discussion and dinner table conversation in the Black community that the further Americans get from the age of the civil rights movement, King’s history of radical opposition to injustice is being lost to more benign talk about hope and “a dream.”

For these critics, the focus on service on the King holiday contributes to that loss. Andrea Pringle, a political organizer who has worked with many of the leaders of the early civil rights movement, sees passing on the King legacy as a family obligation. “We have to take responsibility to educate the generations behind us of our history as black people in this country and give context to Dr. King’s life, his mission and his death,” Pringle said. “A day of service is honorable, but helping our children understand is on us.”