The proof was in the eyes, in the beaming smiles and laughter of the youngsters dancesteppin' to the beat of a band.It was in the burning tears and sometimes downturned heads during quiet, prayerful moments.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. And throughout the Washington area it was, for many, a day of commemoration.

About 2,000 people, most of them black, gathered in reverence in civic ceremonies in downtown Washington. Hundreds gathered in Prince George's Country to discuss civil rights in a series of panel discussions. Smaller groups of people met in the District and the Maryland suburbs as well.

Anacostia, an often-neglected, poverty-riddled but proud Southeast Washington community often considered politically powerless because few of its citizens vote, held its own special parade, billed by parade sponsors as most likely the only parade in the nation held on King's birthday.

"King's the man who helped free blacks and gave us opportunities we never had," said an excited Michelle Pendergraph, 13, a student of Wooden High who watched the parade with two friends. "We still have people who don't have enough to eat, good places to stay or jobs, and we need to have more Martin Luther Kings."

District government workers, senior citizens, out-of-school children and welfare mothers, a group estimated by police at 10,000, lined Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE to praise one hero and welcome another -- recording star Stevie Wonder -- who led the third annual Martin Luther King Day parade. It was the biggest event in Anacostia in many years.

Some had memories of King's "I have a dream" speech in 1963, when 200,000 or more people converged on Washington for a massive demonstration that for many marked a turning point in the history of civil rights activity in the United States. Adults at the parade remembered King from television documentaries and film highlights of his life before he was slain in Memphis in 1968. School children said they remember King from the pictures they have seen and the school lectures they have heard.

Anita Collier, 9, said, "King? He was a boycott for the buses, but I don't remember what that means." Margaret Garey, 20, standing next to Collier, said, "I remember going down to the Monument and hearing speeches, but I don't remember what he said. People were clapping and saying 'amen.'"

"Things are better for blacks now," said Garey, "but I wonder what things would be like if he were still alive."

LaVenia Briscoe, 34, whose 10-year-old daughter Regina was marching with a group from Savoy Elementary School, remembered the signs saying "white" and "colored" in her native North Carolina.

"The 'white' side of the restaurant was fabulous but the 'colored' side was terrible," said Briscoe.

Youngsters in six school bands pranced in colorful uniforms, some yellow and navy and others purple and white. They twirled batons, beat drums and blew into cold brass instruments.

Harold W. and Beatrice Thompson came from Hillcrest Heights, Md., to see the show.

"I came to Washington in 1925, when I was 6 years old, and in a way, this city was worse than the South,' Harold Thompson said. "In the small southern communities, you could have a relationship with the whites, just so long as you stayed in your place. But here, there was more of a separation. . . . There was more open prejudice and the police were used to keeping you in place.

"During those days, a black man who was able to get a job as a messenger was looked up to in the black community, because opportunities were so slim," said Thompson.

Hundreds of school children mobbed Stevie Wonder's car in the parade, yelling "Stevie, Stevie," and stretching out their arms to him. One child wrote his name -- "Cliff" -- in the dust on the trunk of the sleek silver-colored limousine before it sped away. Several others lunged close to Wonder before he left, rubbing the arms of his soft-fox fur coat.

Windor led them in an a cappella version of "We Shall Overcome" and he told them not to forgot King's dream, not to forget those unable to take advantage of the newer opportunities for blacks.

In downtown Washington more than 2,500 men, women and children -- most of them black -- packed the first floor lobby of the main city library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, to join with the mayor and other city officials in observing what could have been King's 51st birthday.

Many come with their entire families, while others brought their children and the neighbors' children to the city's eighth annual memorial service.

"The dreamer is dead . . . but the dream lives on. It lives in your breast and lives in my breast," said D.C. City Council member the Rev. Jerry Moore, who turned the podium of the library into a pulpit and the audience into handclapping revivalists with his speech.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who began his political career in the civil rights movement that King formed, said he hoped that by next year Congress will have declared King's birthday a national holiday. Two such attempts failed last year.

Barry also told the audience that blacks still do not enjoy full equality.

The mayor said the gap in incomes between blacks and whites is widening. In 1970, he said, blacks earned 62 percent of what whites earned. Today the figure is 57 percent.

White high school graduates receive the same pay as some black college graduates, Barry said.

"Let us remember that many of us are not free," Barry said. "Although many of us in this room look successful we are not free . . . We have come to learn that the struggle is an everlasting struggle" and that blacks must help each other.

LaTacha Martin, 10, was born a year after King's death but she asked her friend Lori Holly, 20, a Howard University student, to take her to the service because King "gave us rights to have nice stuff like housing and clothing."

"We can never let his name die," Lola L. Johnson, 79, said softly.

Holly said she had come because "I love the man. We are in a time when we don't have leaders and so we need to remember such a great leader and strive to keep his dream alive."

Rodney Fizgerald, of Colorado Avenue NW, said he took a day off from his federal job to bring his 2 1/2 year old daughter Rhonda because "I want her to realize what he was all about and to instill in her courage motivation like he had."

At the end of the service the audience rose and linked arms and the adults sang "we Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement. Some wept. The children listened and tried to sing as much as they could.

Nearly 200 people came out for the first annual Martin Luther King Day at the Glenarden Town Hall in Prince George's County yesterday. The event was a verbal and musical tribute to King spread out over the course of the day.

A morning panel centered on the theme, "Where do we go from here?" Participants included NAACP President Josie Bass, State Del. Nathaniel Exum, WHUR radio personality Melvin Lindsay and former county educator G. James Gholson.

"Black people have been lulled to sleep in the decade of the '70s," said Bass. "You may be able to go into any store and buy what you want, go into any restaurant and be served, but if the economic pressures in this country should increase it will be clear that we still have major problems and we're still considered different. The struggle continues and anyone who doesn't realize that is living in a world of illusions."

Other speakers said there was a need to make the media more responsive, to change the focus of education from busing to quality instruction, to get people who have moved from the District involved in county politics and to make King's birthday a national holiday.

"We're the trustees of a legacy said Gholson, former principal of Fairmont Heights high school. "And the right to vote is one of the fruits of the legacy. Not using the vote intelligently is a slap in the face of the civil rights movement."

Several gospel and popular musicians also performed at the celebration, including jazz guitarist Bill Harris. At the close of the program participants gathered around the banquet tables to hold hands and sing, "We Shall Overcome."