WASHINGTON — The different colors of their hands intertwined as the fifth-graders raised their arms in solidarity. Their screams of "Free at last!" carried down to the bottom of the Lincoln Memorial's steps.
From these same steps nearly a half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a world in which "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers," in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Across the country — from the beaches of Florida to the high hills of Washington state and monuments in the nation's capital — Americans gathered Monday to commemorate the slain civil rights leader's peaceful spirit. Many spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteering in their communities or speaking out about inequalities that persist in education and elsewhere in America.
Others visited the newly completed memorial to King on the National Mall in Washington.
At a ceremony in the nation's capital, officials and activists laid three wreaths in front of King's stone statue — the only monument on the mall dedicated to an American who wasn't a president — as several attendees softly sang, "We Shall Overcome," an anthem of the civil rights movement.
At the memorial, a woman read aloud King's quotations — such as "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope" — to her grandson. A Christian youth group sang, "This Little Light of Mine," with civil rights activist Al Sharpton joining in the impromptu song.
Many recalled the changes America has undergone since the day King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 at the height of the protest movement.
King's "message of hope and peace has permeated around the world," said Barbara Duncan of Washington. Duncan said she'd participated in the 1963 March on Washington, led by King, and that even as a 10-year-old the message that "I really am my brother's keeper" had resonated with her.
In King's birthplace of Atlanta, employees of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change had spent nearly a year preparing for Monday's events, said Steve Klein, the center's communications coordinator. The flagship memorial service — televised in Atlanta — for King is in that city, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers annually, he said.
"The main thing on Dr. Martin Luther King Day is to engage in a community service project, to do something to help some people in need in every community in America," Klein said.
Members of City Year — a national organization that enlists young adults to work in urban schools for a year — spearheaded community projects in 21 cities, including Miami, Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif. Jeffrey Franco, the executive director of the group's Washington office, said such initiatives aimed to help build what King described as a "beloved community."
"You don't automatically have a beloved community," Franco said. "It takes community members to make it a beloved community."
Lena Scott of Bethesda, Md., said she often spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day trying to foster a love of community service in her two children. This year, she signed them up to participate in City Year Washington's mural-painting project at Dunbar High School, not far from the Capitol.
"We were painting walls to brighten up the place," 9-year-old Alex Scott said, adding that he thinks the work is important.
Joining in was Education Secretary Arne Duncan, dressed in street clothes, who busily painted the murals with his wife and two kids.
"My dream is that every single young person can get an education," Duncan said in an interview. "Education is the civil rights of our generation. If you can't read, you're not truly free."
At King's memorial site, Sharpton said that with rampant poverty and illiteracy, King's work wasn't yet completed in America, or in the world.
"As we go through a day of service, a day of celebration, let's remember the work that needs to be done," Sharpton told the crowd. "There are still forces who want to undo King's visions. ...
"All of us have got to take this day and evaluate what we're going to do to bring the King into our life."
Teachers from Watkins Elementary School in southeast Washington integrated King's principles into their curriculum. Last Friday, the students, dressed in warm clothes, each recited a line from the "I Have a Dream" speech while standing on the Lincoln Memorial's 18th step, the same step King stood on when he delivered it.
Assistant Principal Jennifer McCormick said she hoped it would help ensure that the children grew up with King's principles of equality.
"If he wasn't here, I probably wouldn't be with my best friends today," said Maggie Reinhardt, a fifth-grader at Watkins, who said she dreamed of becoming a teacher.
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