Worshippers were urged Monday not to "sanitize" the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Atlanta church where he preached, while thousands marched in cities around the country and President Barack Obama honored King by serving meals to the needy.
Princeton University scholar Cornel West delivered a passionate keynote address at Ebenezer Baptist Church to commemorate King's 81st birthday and mark the 25th federal observance of the holiday. He told the crowd to remember King's call to help others and not simply enshrine his legacy in "some distant museum."
King should be remembered as a vital person whose powerful message was once even considered dangerous by the FBI, West said at the church where King preached from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.
"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.
He later added, "I don't know about you, but I don't even mention his name without shivering and shuddering."
Advice about Obama
Speaking days before the anniversary of Obama's inauguration, West also told the mostly black audience to hold Obama's administration accountable even as they celebrate his historic presidency.
"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 slain civil rights leader's only living sibling. His other children, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, didn't attend the service.
In Washington, D.C., Obama honored King's legacy of helping others serving lunch at a social services organization. Later Monday, Obama was scheduled to discuss the civil rights movement with a group of black elders and their grandchildren and speak at a King Day concert at the Kennedy Center.
Marches and parades were taking 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."
Confederate flag a rallying point
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."