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President Barack Obama sits alongside children as he participates in a literacy project at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC, Jan. 19, 2015.  Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Americans Mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day With Service Projects and Calls for Change

Jan 19, 2015

Marches and service projects across the U.S. on Monday celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but others used the day to highlight calls for better community relations with police in the wake of last year's high-profile, officer-related deaths of unarmed black Americans.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama led a day of service to commemorate the civil rights leader, on what would have been his 86th birthday, by volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club in Washington, D.C. "Our nation has made undeniable progress since his time, but securing these gains requires constant vigilance, not complacency," the President said in a video announcement. "We have more to do to bring Dr. King's dream within reach of all our daughters and sons. We must stand together for good jobs, fair wages, safe neighborhoods and quality education."

Hundreds of people held a convocation honoring King at Tennessee State University in Nashville, USA Today reports, while others held a unity breakfast and march in Fort Myers, Fla., and black and white students at Clemson University in South Carolina boxed up food for the poor.

Americans in other cities took to the streets to protest the treatment of minorities by law-enforcement officials, fueled by this past summer's police-related deaths of unarmed black men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, of Staten Island and Ferguson, Mo., respectively. In both cases, which ignited nationwide demonstrations and a larger talk about police brutality in communities of color, grand juries declined to indict the officer involved in the death.

A new Gallup poll released Monday found that only 30% of respondents were satisfied with the state of race relations in the country.

Protesters in Oakland, Calif., gathered outside the house of Mayor Libby Schaaf before dawn to call for harsher punishment for police officers who use violence. They played King's speeches, drew the outlines of bodies with chalk on the street and chanted, "Black lives matter," the rallying cry of the Brown and Garner protests.

In New York City, Boston and Washington, among others, protesters staged "die-in" demonstrations. In Brooklyn, Garner's family and the Rev. Al Sharpton placed a wreath on the street where two officers were slain in December. The gunman, identified as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, claimed he was avenging Garner's death and responding to the grand-jury decision not to indict the officer involved in his choke-hold-related death.

Brown and Garner were also on the mind of British actor David Oyelowo, who plays King in the new drama Selma that chronicles the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., ahead of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Oyelowo was a featured speaker at a commemoration at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached.

“I have four children and I cannot imagine walking through life every day knowing there were people on earth who wanted to take my four children’s lives and my wife’s life," Oyelowo said, "and then to leave and go and do it anyway."

Read next: How MLK Day Became a Holiday

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