Women in high-heeled shoes, men in khaki uniforms and schoolchildren in earmuffs and parkas stood patiently in the cold at Western Plaza in downtown Washington yesterday to catch a glimpse of history.

A time capsule bearing memorabilia from the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was lowered into the icy ground, not to be opened for a century.

"My husband, Martin Luther King Jr., once said: 'A people must know their history before they can know their destiny' . . . , " said Coretta Scott King. "We are commending to earth for a future generation . . . a living testimony to the power of love."

The burying of the capsule, not to be unsealed until Jan. 15, 2088, was the first in a series of local activities sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission to mark the 59th anniversary of the birth of the civil rights leader. At the downtown ceremony, King's widow, fellow marchers, government officials and admirers repeated his words, praised his vision and honored him in song.

This is the third year in which King's birthday is being observed as a national holiday, though the District of Columbia has celebrated the day since 1976. King's birthdate was Jan. 15, 1929. The federal government will observe it on Monday this year. Seven states do not observe a holiday for King: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Martin loved America: he particularly cared for the young people and our country's future," said Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who led the ceremony. "Placing this time capsule in Washington, D.C. -- where so much of what Dr. King worked to achieve was translated from the simple dream of justice for all, to the law of the land -- is a symbol of our nation's strength and testimony to the future."

Pierce said, "My fervent wish is that 100 years from now it will be opened by a society in which freedom, peace and brotherhood are commonplace."

People stood on the edge of walls, peered out the windows of the District Building across the street and climbed atop a nearby truck to catch a peep of the wife of the slain leader, their son Dexter, and the late leader's sister, Christine King Farris.

At Western Plaza, Jackie Wambsgans soaked in a bit of history for her 11-year-old daughter. "I keep a diary for my daughter and I put everything in it. I'm going home to write about seeing Coretta Scott King today," said the staff assistant who ran across the street from the District Building, where she works, for the ceremony she thought would last just 20 minutes.

"My toes are so cold, but it is really a historical event," said Wambsgan, who stood at the Plaza. "It is really worth it . . . exciting . . . overwhelming. It's something that will never happen again."

Included in the 500-pound aluminum time capsule were a draft of King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, his Bible, audio-taped tributes from statesmen around the world and the clergyman's robe he preached in as a young minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Also in the capsule was a miniature of the Liberty Bell with thousands of laser-inscribed names. Since last April, the capsule was displayed in schools, malls and city halls across the nation, and individuals and families were encouraged to participate by having their names, cities and states inscribed for $1 each.

"The capsule traveled in 40 states and 100 cities to provide an opportunity for citizens of the United States to take an active role in the preparation of the capsule itself," said Zeborah English, public affairs officer for the holiday commission. "In a manner of speaking it was like a thank you from the commission to the people of the United States for their support of the efforts to establish the commission and the holiday."

Standing in the crowd was Adrian Hart, a 15-year-old student at Jefferson Junior High, who stood on tiptoes to watch a crane lower the capsule as he proclaimed: "I got my name put on the capsule."

Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) held up before the crowd a 51-star flag like the one he said he placed in the capsule. The 51st star would represent the District of Columbia should the city be granted statehood.

"It is our hope that when this capsule is opened this will be the flag of the United States," said Fauntroy, a King confidant who delivered a few spirited lines in the style of the late leader and brought cheers from the crowd.

Mayor Marion Barry recalled that he was among a group of Fisk University students who had been "jailed and beaten" after a civil rights demonstration when King came to visit.

"I didn't grow up in a nonviolent community; I had to fight my way out," Barry said. "But he taught me about nonviolence and he taught me that going to jail for a noble cause was an honor."

It was the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King once led, who evoked the strongest memories of the slain leader with a rousing blessing of the ground that drew loud amens and chants of "Preach!"

"Let the record show that . . . we don't intend to wait 100 years for a fuller measure of justice . . . for our nation to have its soul reflected in medical supplies rather than military supplies . . . , " said Lowery. "We've come too far, marched too long, wept too bitterly, died too long, to let anybody, anwhere, anytime turn back the clock of racial injustice!"

After the ceremony, the King family went to the White House to watch President Reagan sign the official proclamation designating Monday as the King holiday this year.

Reagan presented King's widow with a pen as several others, including King's longtime associate Ralph David Abernathy, looked on. In signing the proclamation, Reagan declared "the fight for genuine equality of opportunity goes on," but he said "great strides" had been made toward ending discrimination and bigotry, a claim Coretta Scott King disputed.

"The least thing that he could do is call for the Congress and the private sector to provide some resources for the poor people of this country . . . , " she said. "We have too many poor people in this country, too many people who go to bed hungry at night, too many with no food and no place to sleep. This is really a disgrace."