The presidential candidates marked the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death on Friday with an apology for not backing a federal holiday for the civil rights activist, to a promise to create a czar to help the poor and a call to fight the social and economic injustices that still exist today.
"We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King," Sen. John McCain said in a speech in Memphis. "I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans."
King was assassinated in Memphis on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, while helping organize a strike by Memphis sanitation workers, then some of the poorest of the city's working poor.
"Forty years ago today, America was robbed of one of history's most consequential advocates for equality and civil rights," President Bush said in a statement. "We have made progress on Dr. King's dream, yet the struggle is not over. Ensuring freedom and equality for all Americans remains one of our most important responsibilities."
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represented the workers then and now, marched Friday from their downtown headquarters to the motel.
Sen. Barack Obama said Friday it was worth reflecting on what King was doing in Memphis.
"For years, these workers had served their city without complaint, picking up other people's trash for little pay and even less respect. Passersby would call them 'walking buzzards,' and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms," Obama said while campaigning in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"But in 1968, these workers decided they'd had enough, and over 1,000 went on strike. Their demands were modest — better wages, better benefits, and recognition of their union. But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. And at the end of one march, a 16-year-old boy lay dead."
Obama said King's struggle for economic justice and racial justice "were really one" and the Illinois senator related King's struggle to the current struggle of many Americans today.
"While those sanitation workers eventually got their union contract, the struggle for economic justice remains an unfinished part of the King legacy. Because the dream is still out of reach for too many Americans," Obama said. "All across this country, families are facing rising costs, stagnant wages, and the terrible burden of losing a home."
In a theme Obama has echoed in other speeches on race, he said that part of the problem that still remains today is that "we've had a politics that's been too small for the scale of the challenges we face."
"Instead of having a politics that lives up to Dr. King's calls for unity, we've had a politics that's used race to drive us apart, when all this does is feed the forces of division and distraction, and stop us from solving our problems," he said.
McCain's apology to the crowd outside the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis drew cries of "We forgive you!" and some heckles.
"Sometimes the most radical thing is to be confronted with our own standards — to be asked simply that we live up to the principles we profess," McCain said in an event sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Even in this most idealistic of nations, we do not always take kindly to being reminded of what more we can do, or how much better we can be, or who else can be included in the promise of America."
McCain talked about King's words that "someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil" and that the greatest way to do that is through love.
"Dr. King and his comrades began to break that chain with their campaign of peaceful protest,'" McCain said, adding that King still was called "an agitator, a trouble-maker, a malcontent, and a disturber of the peace," terms that apply to men and women today in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, Tibet, Iran and other lands "who dare to disturb the peace of tyrants."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a very emotional speech in Memphis, said in many ways it "feels like we've tumbled right down that mountaintop" that King referred to in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Memphis before he was shot.
"Isn't it time we started seeing ourselves as Dr. King saw us?" Clinton asked — coming together to find solutions of what Americans can and should be and "finally addressing the scourge of poverty" that stalks so many.
Clinton vowed to appoint a cabinet-level person to be solely devoted to "ending poverty as we know it in America."
She said the position would focus the attention of the nation on the issue, and that that person would be asked by the president every day "What have you done to end poverty in America?"
Clinton also said to further King's ideals she would appoint Supreme Court justices that uphold the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ending racial segregation in public schools; provide affordable health care for every American; and end the war in Iraq "that has claimed too many of our precious sons and daughters."
Contributing: Associated Press