A National Day of Service

Women volunteers working at the Union Station Canteen in Marion, Ohio, February 1943. Via Ohio Memory.
Volunteers working at the Union Station Canteen in Marion, Ohio, February 1943. Via Ohio Memory.

This Monday, January 19th, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday authorized in 1983. Dr. King is remembered as a key figure in the Civil Rights movement, and a lifelong advocate for peaceful opposition to and action against those that would threaten human rights around the world. As part of this legacy, the holiday in his honor has also been designated as a Day of Service, during which citizens are encouraged to use their day off as a “day on” with the volunteer effort of their choice. You can learn more about the MLK Day of Service from www.NationalService.gov.

Ohio Memory has plenty of photos documenting the many volunteer efforts of Ohioans throughout our past, and today seems a fitting day to highlight a few examples. Seen above are Marion Canteen volunteers at the Marion Union Station during World War II. The Marion Canteen was a project of the U.S.O. (United Service Organizations), a national volunteer organization that aims to improve the quality of life for members of the U. S. armed forces and their families by providing “a touch of home.” Volunteers, working in four-hour shifts, provided snacks, magazines, cigarettes and more to soldiers passing through Marion on troop trains. For security reasons, troop movements were unannounced, so they were never sure when the next troop train was arriving.

Bus proclaiming, "Join the WAVES for Victory," owned by the Lorain Employees Transit Company and serving the cities of Lorain, Elyria, Amherst, and Oberlin. Courtesy of the Lorain Public Library System via Ohio Memory.
Bus proclaiming, “Join the WAVES for Victory,” owned by the Lorain Employees Transit Company and serving the cities of Lorain, Elyria, Amherst, and Oberlin. Courtesy of the Lorain Public Library System via Ohio Memory.

World War II and its aftermath saw a huge number of volunteers involved around the nation, including the Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service (or WAVES), the women’s branch of the Navy until the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act in 1948; American Red Cross blood drives to boost the war effort on the home front; and locally-organized Civil Defense efforts to protect the United States within its borders.

Freedom Summer volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, 1964. Courtesy of the Smith Library of Regional History via Ohio Memory.
Freedom Summer volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, 1964. Courtesy of the Smith Library of Regional History via Ohio Memory.

Also documented on Ohio Memory are those volunteers involved with the Freedom Summer during the Civil Rights movement, when 600 young people (mostly college students from northern states) were bussed to the South to spend the summer registering voters, teaching, and establishing community centers for African Americans. Their preparation included training in non-violent discipline, as espoused by Dr. King. The photograph at right shows volunteers during their training at Western College Campus in Oxford, Ohio, when Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (at center) came to visit during the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race training program. Hamer, an African American from Mississippi, was active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Additional volunteer work can be found on Ohio Memory, including the Hope Emergency Program in Brown County, workers with local polio vaccine distribution programs, numerous volunteer fire departments teams, and volunteers with the Great Books movement, popularized in the years after World War II.

We hope you’ll find inspiration in these images to take advantage of MLK Day of Service, but also to keep the volunteer spirit alive all year round. As Dr. King himself said to students at Oberlin College during a speech in October 1964, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”


Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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