On the 40th anniversary of his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered Friday in the city where he died as a man who came to Memphis "to lead us to a better way."

king-ml-cp-4619908

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. ((Associated Press))

Presidential candidates, civil rights leaders, labour activists and thousands of citizens were coming together to honour King for his devotion to racial equality and economic justice.

King was cut down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, while helping to organize a strike by Memphis sanitation workers, then some of the most impoverished of the city's workers. His confessed killer James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998.

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, now a civil rights museum.

Presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain were scheduled to take part in later anniversary day events that were to include an afternoon "recommitment march" and the laying of wreaths at the site. Barack Obama will be campaigning in Indiana.

'Hear the message'

"The whole nation flinched" when King was killed, said writer Cynthia Griggs Fleming, one of the many historians, commentators and activists in town for panel discussions and lectures on King's legacy.

King advised his followers to keep working for equal rights for all citizens, "to keep on moving," no matter what obstacles they faced, Fleming said in a talk Thursday at a Memphis church.

"Don't be so consumed by the pain that you don't hear the message," she said.

King's son, Martin Luther King III, wrote in an opinion piece published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that the nation is still plagued by poverty. He urged presidential candidates to vow to appoint a cabinet-level officer who would help the poor.

"We are not doing anywhere near enough," he said Friday during an interview with his sister, Bernice, on the Today show.

King was a champion of nonviolent protest for social change, and his writings and speeches still stir older followers and new ones alike, said Vivian, who helped organize lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and rode on a "freedom bus" through Mississippi.

Other tributes were being held around the country. In Congress, House and Senate leaders and legislators who once worked with the civil rights leader marked the anniversary with a tribute Thursday in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

"Because of the leadership of this man we rose up out of fear and became willing to put our bodies on the line," said Representative John Lewis, a companion of King in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.