WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama served plates of steaming hot lunches to the needy Monday, one of several ways the nation's first black president paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on the federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Obama held a discussion at the White House with black elders and their grandchildren about the push for racial equality that King led until he was assassinated in 1968. In the evening, the president spoke at the Kennedy Center during a musical celebration of King's legacy, urging the nation to recommit itself to fulfilling King's dream.
"So tonight let us remember the courage of the man who had that dream. Let us remember the perseverance of all those who have worked to fulfill that dream," Obama said, with his family looking on from the audience. "Let us recommit ourselves to doing our part in our own lives and as a nation to make that dream real in the 21st century."
The free concert featured singer India.Arie along with the Let Freedom Ring Choir, which is made up mostly of Georgetown University students, faculty and staff.
Obama's outings Monday were part of an array of holiday tributes. Worshippers at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church heard Princeton University scholar Cornel West deliver a passionate keynote address in Atlanta, urging them not to "sanitize" King's legacy.
In Washington, Obama spent the day with King observances.
"How are you sir? God bless you," the president said, greeting one man among the dozens of men and women who filed into the dining room at SOME, or So Others Might Eat.
The organization, a short ride from the White House, provides the poor and homeless with food and other services. Obama handed them pre-assembled lunch plates of chicken, potato salad, mixed vegetables and bread.
He brought the whole family: first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, mother-in-law Marian Robinson and some aides.
Mrs. Obama poured hot coffee while 8-year-old Sasha tagged along and handed out packets of sweetener. Mrs. Robinson walked around serving pastries from a baking sheet. Malia, 11, walked among the rows of diners, chatting with them and shaking hands.
One woman asked Mrs. Obama if she had brought the family dog, Bo. She did not.
Back at the White House, Obama and Mrs. Obama sat around a conference table in the Roosevelt Room for a discussion with people who had been active in the civil rights movement, including Dorothy Height, the longtime chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, and Willie Glanton, the first black woman elected to Iowa's state Legislature in the mid-1960s.
Obama told reporters the conversation served as a reminder "that there were some extraordinarily courageous young people ... who were actively involved in bringing about one of the great moments in United States history."
Monday – the 25th federal observance of King's birthday – was the president's second day of reflection on the civil rights leader's legacy, whom Obama credits with paving the way for his 2008 election.
On Sunday, at a Baptist church founded by freed slaves, Obama spoke of his reliance on faith, recalled King's work and urged hundreds of worshippers to take heart in hard times and celebrate progress – however small.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.