By Laura MacInnis and Lily Kuo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama gave a partisan-tinged speech to dedicate a new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., likening the battle for racial equality to his political struggles in a divided Washington.
In a Sunday address that sounded at times like a sermon, the Democrat said that nearly 50 years since King's famous "I Have A Dream" oration on the National Mall, the monument to him symbolized the need to fight on for social justice.
Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, toured the monument with his wife Michelle and two daughters as well as some of King's family members before addressing tens of thousands of people gathered for the dedication ceremony.
He said the 30-foot (9-meter) granite sculpture of the pastor, arms crossed and eyeing the horizon, was a celebration of the civil rights movement that gave blacks the vote and ended segregation in schools, on buses and elsewhere in U.S. life.
While describing "progress that has expressed itself in a million ways" since the 1963 March on Washington, he said the economic crisis that has driven up the U.S. jobless rate was a new challenge also requiring determined action.
"On this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles," he told the crowd on the Mall, where the other iconic monuments commemorate wars and presidents.
Echoing a theme from his speeches for the 2012 campaign, Obama said it was important to remember that King's successes did not come easily and required a great deal of persistence.
"When met with hardship, when confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept what he called the 'is-ness' of today. He kept pushing for the 'ought-ness' of tomorrow," he told the crowd on the sunny, crisp autumn day.
"And so, as we think about all the work that we must do -- rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage, and fixing our schools so that every child ... gets a world-class education, and making sure that our health care system is affordable and accessible to all, and that our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake and everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by what is," he shouted into the microphone.
"We've got to keep pushing for what ought to be, the America we ought to leave to our children, mindful that the hardships we face are nothing compared to those Dr. King and his fellow marchers faced 50 years ago," he said.
The speech was warmly received by the crowd, many of whom thought it was fair to link the civil rights fight with today's political wrangling over jobs, deficits and the national debt.
"We are still struggling. People still need to be willing to fight and to do all the things they had to do during Martin Luther King's era," said Anne Jones, 64, who traveled from Massachusetts for the dedication. "I think lots of people in general are having the same struggles they were having then."
Jon Carter, a 56-year-old from Houston, agreed there were lessons from the civil rights leader that applied today. "I think the state of the country is that the equality that should exist in 2011 does not exist," he said.
Obama's approval ratings have fallen over his handling of the economic crisis, especially since his stand-off with Republicans about raising the U.S. debt ceiling that brought the United States to the brink of default in early August.
His $447 billion jobs bill was voted down in the Senate and he is embarking on a three-day bus tour in North Carolina and Virginia on Monday to tout his ideas about raising taxes on the very rich to pay for projects to employ more Americans, which Republicans are resisting.
Obama did not reference the Occupy Wall Street movement by name but gave a nod in his remarks to growing unrest about the economic inequalities in the United States.
"At this moment when our politics appear so sharply polarized and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King's teachings," the president said.
"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," he said, adding: "Aligning our reality with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths and the creative tension of non-violent protest."
The dedication of the $120 million memorial was originally scheduled for August 28, the 48th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, but was postponed because of Hurricane Irene. It opened to the public August 22.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)