For years, the Philadelphia-area celebration of Martin Luther King's Birthday has been a big, peaceful day of service driven by volunteers who fill backpacks, paint schools, and clean streets.

Now, that tradition is poised to encounter a new and more assertive vision - a protest march that organizers say will bring 10,000 people to Center City, many propelled by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

"While we recognize the importance of service, Dr. King was not assassinated because of his charity work. He was assassinated because he challenged the status quo," said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, a leader of the new MLK D.A.R.E. coalition. "We only do honor to his memory if we continue to fight the same fight."

Marchers seek to emulate the King of the last years of his life - when he broke with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War and declared the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

The impetus for MLK D.A.R.E - short for "MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment" - springs from the "Black Lives Matter" protests in Philadelphia last month. Its members include religious leaders, labor unions, parent groups, and students.

"We can no longer just sit back and watch our children be killed in the street," said Kendra Brooks of Parents United, an education advocacy group.

The head of the region's King Day program, who on Wednesday announced that a record 135,000 volunteers will take part on Jan. 19, said he saw the events as complementary, not conflicting.

"It's all under one tent," said Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. "Not only are we supportive, the whole purpose of the King day of celebration is for everyone to claim it."

Bernstein, Mayor Nutter, and other community and city leaders met at Girard College to announce plans for what is billed as the nation's largest King Day event. Now in its 20th year, the three-state observance seeks to turn community concerns into citizen action.

Many of this year's 1,800 service projects will center on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act - which has seen some of its provisions reversed and challenged.

Among Wednesday's speakers was Ken Salaam, a local civil-rights veteran who worked with King to desegregate Girard College. Asked about the march, he said, "It's needed. . . . When you want to bring down a big elephant, you've got to hit him from all sides."

March leaders cite three objectives: justice, jobs, and education. Specifically, they said, they want an end to "stop and frisk" police practices and creation of a powerful police oversight board; an immediate raise to $15 an hour as the minimum wage; and a fully funded, democratically controlled school system.

Marchers plan to gather outside the city school district office at 440 N. Broad Street at 1:30 p.m. They'll trek south to City Hall, then east to Sixth and Market Streets to rally at Independence Mall.

Organizers say the January timing is key, with a new governor ready to take office in Harrisburg and several candidates seeking to become Philadelphia's next mayor.

"The Day of Service has kind of depicted him in a passive way, and he wasn't passive - he believed in direct action," said Brooks, the schools advocate.

In a written "Call to Conscience, Commitment and Action," the coalition cited King's stirring antiwar speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, delivered exactly a year before he was shot to death on April 4, 1968.

"The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak," King said, insisting that the war's quick end was a moral imperative.

Afterward he was harshly criticized, even by some supporters, who believed civil-rights activism and Vietnam-war opposition were separate issues. King said those upset by his antiwar stance "have not really known me."

The volunteerism that defines King Day is good and useful, "but that's not his true legacy," said march organizer Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe, a minister at First Corinthian Baptist Church.

"We're seeking to reclaim his legacy, the legacy we think is critical to justice in this country."

To honor King's memory, MLK D.A.R.E. leaders said, they must act with his spirit and tenacity, taking direct, nonviolent action.

"We are not at odds with the Day of Service," Tyler said. "But when you talk about Dr. King, we're really talking about a man of action. There's a feeling by the average person, 'In this moment, I have to do something.' They couldn't go to Ferguson. They couldn't go to Staten Island. This march becomes an opportunity for people to put feet to their faith."

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage