ATLANTA — A scholar and activist invoked the fiery side of Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric Monday at the civil rights icon's church, urging the audience not to "sanitize" King's legacy or let the president off the hook on issues like poverty.
Across the country, Americans marked the holiday on what would have been King's 81st birthday with rallies and parades. And days ahead of the anniversary of his historic inauguration, President Barack Obama honored King by serving meals to the needy.
But in the city where the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner was born, it was Princeton University professor Cornel West who reminded listeners that King's message of nonviolence came with a fiery urgency. West delivered a passionate keynote address to hundreds at Ebenezer Baptist Church on the 25th federal observance of King's birthday.
West told the crowd to remember King's call to help others and not enshrine his legacy in "some distant museum." Instead, West offered, King should be remembered as a vital person whose powerful message was once even considered dangerous by the FBI.
"I don't want to sanitize Martin Luther King Jr.," said West, who teaches in Princeton's Center for African American Studies and is the author of "Race Matters" and 19 other books. "I don't know about you, but I don't even mention his name without shivering and shuddering."
West also told the mostly black audience to hold Obama's administration accountable even as they celebrate his historic presidency. The anniversary of Obama's inauguration as the country's first black president — seen by many blacks as part of the fulfillment of King's dream — is Jan. 20.
"Even with your foot on the brake, there are too many precious brothers and sisters under the bus," West said of Obama. "Where is the talk about poverty? We've got to protect him and respect him, but we've also got to correct him if the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is going to stay alive."
King's youngest daughter, Bernice King, presided over the ceremony with her aunt, Christine King Farris, the civil rights leader's only living sibling. His other children, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, did not attend the service at the church where King preached, which was packed to its 2,200-person capacity.
In Washington, D.C., Obama honored King's legacy of helping others by serving lunch at a social services organization. Later Monday, Obama discussed the civil rights movement with a group of black elders and their grandchildren. He was later scheduled to speak at a King Day concert at the Kennedy Center.
"How are you sir? God bless you," the president said, greeting one man among the dozens of people who filed into the dining room at So Others Might Eat. His daughters and first lady Michelle Obama joined him.
Marches and parades took place around the country, including one in Montgomery, Ala., where King gained renown leading a bus boycott in protest of segregation during the 1950s.
Tens of thousands marched in San Antonio, with some singing "We shall overcome," an anthem of 1960s civil rights workers, and others chanting "Yes, we can," the slogan used by Obama's campaign.
Mark Melchor, a 22-year-old university student, wore a jacket from his Latino fraternity, a group that participates in the event every year.
King represents "civil rights for everybody," he said. "There's always going to be more work to be done. Minorities still have a disadvantage in the world. It's getting better but still."
In South Carolina, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People vowed to step up efforts to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds. The flag flies on a 30-foot pole on the front lawn of the Capitol, after it was moved in 2000 from a perch atop the Capitol Dome.
Thousands turned out for the rally and a march through downtown Columbia. Theron Foster showed his 8-year-old daughter the African-American History monument less than 100 yards from the flag.
"I want her to know both sides of the story of South Carolina," Foster said. "I want her to see what an insult this state puts right next to the story of her people."
Associated Press Writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Roberts in San Antonio; and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.