America celebrates life of Martin Luther King

ATLANTA – Americans inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. took part in marches and rallies around the country Monday, applying lessons from the late civil rights leader’s messages to modern issues like the Iraq war and gay rights.

Despite Monday’s chilly temperatures, thousands of marchers then walked through the Atlanta district where King grew up and preached.

Joining high school marching bands, union workers and civil rights activists, a group of 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.

At a King Day breakfast in Boston, Sen. John Kerry made some of his strongest comments since Election Day about problems with voting in some states.

While reiterating that he did not contest the presidential election, Kerry said: "I nevertheless make it clear that thousands of people were suppressed in the effort to vote. Voting machines were distributed in uneven ways. In Democratic districts, it took people four, five, 11 hours to vote, while Republicans [went] through in 10 minutes – same voting machines, same process, our America."

"Martin Luther King reminded us that yes, we have to accept finite disappointment, and I know how to do that," Kerry said to chuckles from listeners. "But he said we must … never give up on infinite hope."

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.

In Atlanta, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss told the crowd at Ebenezer that King’s work is unfinished.

"The dream of Dr. King will not be fulfilled until everyone who is uneducated is educated, everyone who is homeless has a roof over their head, and all who hunger become fed," Chambliss said.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., affirmative action supporters used the holiday to demonstrate against a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at banning racial preferences.

In Denver, tens of thousands walked two miles to remember King and honor his message of nonviolent change. Many walkers pushed toddlers in strollers or held a leash as a dog trotted alongside.

Thousands also marched in San Antonio, and in Philadelphia, 45,000 volunteers showed up for the 10th annual day of service named for the civil rights leader. The roughly 600 community projects included renovating area schools and churches and making care packages for troops overseas.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Bush planned to attend an event honoring King at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary American and a dedicated leader who believed deeply in liberty and dignity for every person," Bush said in a holiday proclamation. "His faith and courage continue to inspire America and the world.