ATLANTA -- Americans inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took part in marches and rallies around the country yesterday, drawing from the late civil rights leader's message to call for an end to the Iraq war, advocate affirmative action, and speak out for gay rights.
In King's hometown, parade spectators lined the streets dancing to Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" and listening to King's speeches blaring over the loudspeakers. Thousands of marchers, braving the winter chill, then walked through the Atlanta district where King grew up and preached.
Joining high school marching bands, union workers, and civil rights activists, several hundred people came in support of gay rights, saying King's message was one of inclusion.
"Dr. King's dream is for everyone, not just one specific group of individuals," said Michelle Bruce, a Riverdale city councilwoman who marched with a transgender group called TransAction. "If you hate discrimination and racism, this is the place to come and march."
In a commemorative service marking the holiday at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King III asked the congregation to remember his father's legacy of peace as America wages war in Iraq, and to remember his message of compassion in light of the tsunami disaster. "Let us respond to this challenge by reaching out to help our sisters and brothers who are suffering because of the tsunami," he said.
King preached at Ebenezer from 1960 until his assassination in 1968 at age 39. He would have turned 76 on Saturday.
In Montgomery, Ala., the city where King led the famous bus boycott, a crowd gathered at the steps of the state Capitol near where King spoke at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march almost 40 years ago.
Speakers included Public Service Commissioner George Wallace Jr., whose father, former four-time Governor George Wallace, once promised to preserve segregation in a fiery inauguration speech from the same steps.
Wallace said his father changed his views after he was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt, and later visited Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King once served as pastor, to ask for forgiveness.
"His journey from the Old South to Dr. King's church was one that we all took. The pain my father suffered allowed him to understand the suffering of others," Wallace said. "We have a unique opportunity in Alabama to demonstrate to the world that Dr. King's dream is still alive."
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Bush attended an event honoring King at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"By observing and honoring Dr. King's birthday, we teach the next generation lessons that must never be forgotten," Bush said at the ceremony. "We need our children to know how great the struggle for racial justice in our society has been, and how much work remains to be done."