U.S. dignitaries and celebrities turned out to praise slain American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., at a ceremony marking the groundbreaking of a memorial to honor him.
"Congratulations, America. This is your great day," American writer Maya Angelou said. She said she is proud Martin Luther King will be honored with a memorial in the heart of the U.S. capital.
King was a Baptist minister who championed equal rights for black people in the 1950's and 1960's, at a time when there was institutional racial segregation in the United States.
He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, but was killed by an assassin's bullet in 1968.
A memorial to honor King will be built on the National Mall in downtown Washington, which President Bush said will give the slain civil rights leader his rightful place among great Americans.
"The King memorial will span a piece of ground between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials," the president said. "And, by its presence in this place, it will unite the men who declared the promise of America, and defended the promise of America, with the man who redeemed the promise of America."
Mr. Bush said Martin Luther King considered the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a promise to all Americans.
King's efforts and inspiration helped lead to the striking down of laws that enforced racial segregation.
American talk show host Oprah Winfrey said she lives in what she called "a state of perpetual gratitude."
"It is because of Dr. King and all those who worked with him that I stand, and because of them, I have a voice that can be heard," she said. "And I want you to know that I do not take that for granted, not for one breath, not for one breath. I live in state of reverence for where I have come from, and the price that was paid for me to be here."
Former President Bill Clinton, who signed legislation in 1996 to approve the creation of the memorial, said it also highlights King's reliance on non-violent methods.
"It will also be a reminder of Martin Luther King's conviction, that in the struggle for freedom, equality and justice, non-violence, his passion for peace, is the most effective strategy," Mr. Clinton said. "When the real battlefield is the human heart, civil disobedience works better than suicide bombing."
TV journalist Diane Sawyer read a letter from former South African President Nelson Mandela, whose country, in the days of apartheid, had legalized black and white segregation. Mr. Mandela said King's struggle for racial equality inspired and continues to inspire people around the world.
"Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war," Sawyer read. "Let the efforts of us all prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold."
"Look where we have all come from," Angelou sang, "moving out of darkness, moving toward the light. Look. Look."
The memorial is scheduled to open in 2008.