For Lois Hamilton, it seems fitting that the current protests against apartheid in South Africa coincide with Maryland's first formal commemoration of a man who spent his life working for civil rights -- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I think it's very appropriate that this protest of apartheid comes at a time when we're finally recognizing the accomplishments of Dr. King," said Hamilton, president of the Prince George's County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The observance of King's birthday on Jan. 15 by 18 states and the Virgin Islands comes 17 years after the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis. Beginning next year, the third Monday in January will be observed as a federal holiday in remembrance of King.

This year about half of Maryland's public schools and county offices, including those in Montgomery and Prince George's, will be closed. All state employes will be given the day off.

Civic and political leaders will observe King's birthday with conferences, protests, concerts and awards to those who have furthered civil rights in their communities.

In Prince George's County, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will sponsor a panel discussion at the Sheraton Hotel in New Carrollton. During the forum, entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?" civic leaders, including Calvin Rolark of the United Negro Fund, will address U.S. policy in South Africa, civil rights at home, and the role public schools should take to incorporate the civil rights era into mainstream history.

The conference will be followed at 3 p.m. with a protest at the South African Embassy. That evening the Howard University gospel choir will perform at the First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover.

"Even if it weren't a state holiday, we would still have these events," Hamilton said. "But the formal declaration should focus the public's attention on civil rights."

Montgomery County will mark King's birthday with a breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Silver Spring. A round of speeches, led by Morgan State University President Earl S. Richardson, will follow.

That evening, the county will host a concert at the Rockville campus of Montgomery College. The county's third annual $1,000 scholarship award will be presented to a student who has "worked in the community for civil rights and minorities," said Devance Walker, minority affairs officer for the county.

"This holiday gives us the chance to remind people that minorities are still subjected to racism and prejudice. It's a chance to say, 'Let's go forward, not backward.' "

The city of Rockville will host a day-long program entitled "And Justice for All" at the Rockville Senior Center on Saturday. The activities, which will include speakers, workshops and films on King and aspects of the civil rights movement, will begin at 9:30 a.m. Two companies in the community will be honored with human rights awards for using affirmative action hiring practices, according to Sandra Robinson, human rights investigator for the city.

"We're having the activities on Saturday so that the people who have to work on Dr. King's birthday won't be left out," Robinson said.