President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication of the Martin...

President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. (Oct. 16, 2011) Credit: AP

President Barack Obama saluted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday as a man who "stirred our conscience" and made the Union "more perfect," rejoicing in the dedication of a monument memorializing the slain civil rights leader's life and work.

"I know we will overcome," Obama, who was 6 when King was assassinated in 1968, proclaimed to the crowd of several thousand attending the dedication.

"He had faith in us," the president added. "And that is why he belongs on this Mall: because he saw what we might become."

The nation's first black president dedicated the first memorial to a black man on the National Mall, a circumstance the memorial's designers had not envisioned when they began work more than 15 years ago.

But all around the sun-splashed, star-studded event were reminders of the gap between King's famous dreams of equality and the nation's imperfect reality in 2011. Now, too, the nation remains riven by war, economic crisis and, in some quarters, distrust of government.

Thousands of people spanning all ages and races attended the dedication, which was originally planned for August but delayed by Tropical Storm Irene. Singer Aretha Franklin and poet Nikki Giovanni were among those at the more than four-hour ceremony.

King's children and other leaders spoke before the president, invoking his "I Have a Dream" speech and calling upon a new generation to help fully realize that dream.

In his speech, Obama did not directly mention himself, but focused on King's broad themes -- equality, justice and peaceful resistance.

"If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there," Obama told the crowd in comments that seemed to be aimed at the protests against the wealthy and powerful.

Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, each dropped a scroll inside a time capsule to be buried at the memorial. A White House aide confirmed that the items were signed copies of the president's inaugural speech and his address to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

They moved on to the granite monument: two jagged boulders representing the "mountain of despair" King described, with a massive "stone of hope" removed from the middle and pushed ahead.

Carved from the central piece is the 30-foot sculpture of King, arms crossed, staring out over the reflecting pool and past the Jefferson Memorial to the horizon.

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