As a child, he saw his father rise to greatness and then, one terrible day 18 years ago, saw him lying dead -- shot down on a Memphis motel balcony. For Martin Luther King III, the Jan. 20 holiday devoted to his father represents a chance to rekindle and work toward the civil rights leader's dream.

King, 28, visited the Washington area this weekend as part of a nationwide campaign to urge schools, local and state governments and ordinary citizens to participate in the federal holiday commemorating the life of his father and namesake, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King, a stocky young man whose brown eyes glitter with intensity, bears a slight resemblance to the father he lost when he was 10 years old. The victory of getting the holiday established, he said in a recent interview, far overshadows its painful reminder of his own loss.

"It's a joyous day," he said. "I'm not sad, it's not a gloomy day."

Still, he imagines what it would be like if now, as an adult, he could know his father.

"God knows, I'd love to be able to talk to him now. The man, from what I understand, was brilliant. I'd love to be able to say, 'Daddy, what do you think about this, or what do you think about that?' I miss that. But I know he's with me."

King said he wants to see that the holiday honoring his father's achievements and legacy does not lose its meaning. He hopes it is never viewed as just a day off from work, a day for parties or department store sales.

"That's really not what it should be about at all," he said. "It should be a day of recommitment," a time for Americans to reflect on what they can do to make the world a better place.

The holiday should stimulate people to get involved in humanitarian issues, such as ending world hunger or working to dismantle South Africa's system of apartheid, King said.

King, with his brother and two sisters, works at the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. He hopes that the institution will become, like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials here, a monument to a man and an ideal, drawing visitors from around the country.

King is involved in the center's newly launched Youth Against Violence program, which seeks to end crime and substance abuse among young blacks by creating positive role models.

"Blacks are conditioned to dislike blacks," he said. "That's why the black homicide rates are so high." King said one source of that conditioning is television, which, he said, until recently offered no realistic portrayals of stable black families.

Another way to combat the problems among black youth, said King, "is to go back to basic principles -- to God and prayer."

Though dedicated to perpetuating his father's legacy, King is also a young man still searching for the way to leave his own mark. He said he has "tremendous faith," but he has not been drawn to the ministry like his father and grandfather.

Instead, he said, he is thinking about entering politics. "I don't think God has called me in the traditional sense," he said. He said he is considering running for political office, perhaps the Atlanta City Council in Atlanta or the Georgia legislature.

King said he believes his travels and lectures are part of his still-evolving sense of mission. "I think that's going to increase in connection with what God wants me to do, although I'm not sure what that is," he said. "I've still got some growing to do, even at this late stage."

Last week, King and his two sisters were among those arrested outside an Atlanta supermarket for protesting the sale of goods made in South Africa. With them were two of their cousins and the son of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy.

King said he thinks apartheid will galvanize a new generation of civil rights activists. "It hurts," said King, "and it has the kind of visibility that will create a catalytic campaign for a new movement here."

Up to now, he said, "Most children of prominent people in the movement have really shied away. They saw the tremendous agonizing their parents went through."

But, King added, "I think when we have to rise to the occasion, we do."