By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Americans honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday with a traditional day of service as well as a new wave of protests by Occupy Wall Street to promote causes of economic justice.
Across the nation, hundreds of formal events were planned for the federal holiday to celebrate the slain leader's birthday and legacy, from prayer services to parades to performances.
But it was the first time the annual King holiday has been held since the Occupy Wall Street movement reignited debate about social inequality and poverty. The protesters have targeted investment banks, noting the government bailed out Wall Street while many Americans still struggle with joblessness and housing foreclosures.
Not long before he was murdered in 1968, King was organizing a Poor People's Campaign as the next phase in the civil rights movement.
"Occupy Wall Street continues Martin Luther King's quest for economic justice through nonviolent action," the protest movement said in a statement.
"Communities of color ... have been hardest hit by predatory lending practices," it said. "Occupy Wall Street is here to pick up where King left off. We are here to reclaim the dream."
This year's King holiday also comes as officials in more than a dozen states implement new laws requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Critics say the restriction violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- one of the key accomplishments of the movement King led.
In New York, Occupy Wall Street protesters were starting their march at an African Burial Ground, where hundreds of slaves were buried in the 17th and 18th centuries. The site was uncovered in 1991 during excavation for construction of a federal building and is now part of the National Park Service.
The march was headed to the Federal Reserve Bank where participants planned to rally for economic justice. The march then was headed to Madison Square Garden, where Cablevision workers were set to vote on whether to unionize this month.
Later, a demonstration dubbed Occupation for Jobs was planned in New York City's Union Square.
Occupy the Dream, a coalition of African American church groups affiliated with Occupy Wall Street, called for a national day of action outside offices of the Federal Reserve in 16 cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco.
Because of the federal holiday, post offices, government buildings and most public schools remained closed.
Community and civil rights leaders urged Americans to make Monday a day on, not a day off, and to honor King's crusade for nonviolence and racial brotherhood by doing volunteer work.
One source for such work is a website, http://mlkday.gov/, set up to help would-be volunteers find local projects.
Elsewhere, prayer breakfasts, concerts and even sporting events were set to mark the holiday, which the nation began officially celebrating in 1986.
In Atlanta, where King was born on January 15, 1929, cellist Yo-Yo Ma was to perform at Morehouse College, King's alma mater.
In Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 to more than a quarter million listeners in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a focal point for celebrations was the new memorial dedicated to King last fall.
In Memphis, where King was slain on April 4, 1968, the city's professional basketball team, the Grizzlies, was playing its annual Civil Rights Game against the Chicago Bulls.
In Austin, an annual King Day march was set to start at the University of Texas campus. A "Peace Rally" was set for the Children's Museum in Houston, while a celebration at Dallas Fair Park was host to floats, drill teams and bands.
King, a Baptist pastor who advocated for nonviolence, racial brotherhood and equal rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was assassinated in 1968 as he stood outside his motel room in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers.
The convicted assassin, a segregationist and drifter named James Earl Ray, confessed to the killing but later recanted. He died in prison in 1998.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Karen Brooks, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Barbara Goldberg)