ATLANTA - The thousands gathered annually at the church where he preached to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his birthday on Monday for the 40th time - more than he had a chance to recognize during his own life.
King was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, 1968, and his family has marked his birthday each year since his death.
'We would be remiss if we did not commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., a champion of peace in a time of war,' said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King's nephew and president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Four decades ago, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, began commemorating his birthday in Atlanta. For years, she could be seen in the televised ceremony, singing 'We Shall Overcome' and laying a wreath at the crypt where both Kings are now buried.
Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 79 this year. Coretta Scott King died in 2006 at age 78.
Farris urged diplomacy, economic incentives and other nonviolent efforts 'as an alternative to military intervention to end the war in Iraq,' which drew applause from the crowd of more than 2,000.
Former President Bill Clinton, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin were among the dignitaries attending the ceremony.
'Georgia is on the mind of the next president of the United States,' said Franklin, who recently endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
She said King's legacy made it possible to 'witness the impossible' in 2008, that a black man - referring to Obama - as well as a first lady, a Baptist minister and a Mormon, could all become president. The latter were references to Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Huckabee and Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
'Martin aimed high, acted with faith, dreamed miracles that inspired a nation. Can we act on King's legacy without dreaming? I think not,' she said. 'King's legacy gives light to our hopes, permission to our aspirations and relevance to our dreams.'
Bill Clinton, who sat in a wooden pew in the front row, told the congregation that he appointed more black officials to his administration than all other previous presidents combined 'not because of me, but because of the influence of Martin Luther King in my life.'
The former president said he and his 'Southern cracker kin folks' were plagued by politicians who played on racial fears until King showed the way.
'He freed us all to fight the civil rights battle, to fight the poverty battle, to fight all these battles and do it together,' Clinton said. 'He made a place at the table for all of us. He made the beloved community possible.'
He went on to express amazement over the diversity of candidates in the race for the White House.
'Isn't this interesting? I mean, how cool is it? You know, we've got all these different people seeking the presidency,' he said. 'And guess what? It's all possible because of Martin Luther King's vision of the beloved community.'
King's actual birthday is Jan. 15, but the federal observance is recognized on the third Monday in January.
His widow, Coretta Scott King, worked for more than a decade to establish her husband's birthday as a federal holiday. King's birthday has been a national holiday since 1986 and is celebrated in more than 100 countries, some of which have also established holidays in his honor.
Their eldest daughter, Yolanda, died last year. Both she and Coretta Scott King were recognized with tributes during the program.
The holiday has been observed at Ebenezer Baptist Church - where King preached from 1960 until 1968 - every year since his death. But it holds a new political significance this week because it falls closer to primary elections than in past years, since many states moved the elections up to jockey for influence.
South Carolina, which boasts a large black electorate in the Democratic primary, votes on Jan. 26. And King's home state, Georgia, will be part of the Super Tuesday voting on Feb. 5, along with California, New York and 22 other states.