The nation honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday as a great man whose life holds vital lessons for the present. But there was no unanimity on what those lessons were, or whether King's birthday should be made a national holiday, or just what that holiday would symbolize.

While a group of black leaders gathered on Capitol Hill to plot strategy for lobbying for the holiday, President Reagan was devoting his weekly radio address to King, who would have been 54 yesterday, for having awakened "the moral sense of an entire nation."

"Fifteen years after Martin Luther King's death, traces of bigotry and injustice still remain," the president said. "So let the anniversary of this courageous American's birth be for us both a time of thanksgiving and a time of renewal. Let us be grateful for the providence that sends among us men and women with the courage and vision to stand peacefully but unyieldingly for what is right."

Reagan, who also held an evening reception in King's honor, avoided mention in his radio address of making Jan. 15 a national holiday, which he opposes. Spokesman Larry Speakes said the president believes such holidays "have been mainly reserved for the Washingtons and the Lincolns."

Rather than being a holiday, Reagan indicated, the anniversary of King's birth should be "a time of thanksgiving and a time of renewal. . . when we rededicate ourselves, young and old, black and white, to carry on the work of justice and totally reject the words and actions of hate embodied in groups like the Ku Klux Klan."

At the reception, attended by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, comedian Richard Pryor, Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP, and others, Reagan said that "Abraham Lincoln freed the black man. In many ways, Martin Luther King freed the white man." He added, "Everytime a black woman casts a ballot, Martin King is there. Everytime a black man is hired for a good job, Dr. King is there."

A few blocks away on Capitol Hill, inside the Cannon House Office Building, a group of community organizers and elected officials earlier in the day sought new ways to secure passage of the Martin Luther King Holiday Bill, which has died in Congress each year since King was fatally shot in Memphis in 1968.

The meeting was an attempt to shift the focus of efforts on behalf of the holiday from marches and demonstrations to the lobbying of legislators. But those attending were mindful of the enormous problems facing black America today--crushing unemployment, the effects of the recession, and lingering racism that many blacks find to be more prevalent than the "traces" cited by Reagan. And they gave differing ideas on just what a King holiday would symbolize.

The issue in seeking the holiday, indicated Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), one of the organizers of the session, was not another day off from work, but rather the need for a symbol associated with King's success in achieving civil rights and his moral stand on peace and justice.

"We should celebrate the people who died for King's principles," said singer Stevie Wonder, who this year abandoned his annual march in support of the holiday to call for the legislative strategy session.

"Of course, we would have a responsibility to use our time off" to carry on King's work, Wonder said. "After all, if it wasn't for King, many of the people who do have jobs would not."

"We should celebrate this day because birthdays are happy days, when we enjoy a man's life spirit and humor," D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy said. "My heart is singing today."

The holiday bill failed by only five votes last year, and sponsors said they are optimistic that 1983 would be the year it passes. As much emphasis appeared to be placed on planning for the 20-year anniversary of King's 1963 march on Washington, to be reenacted this August.

Meanwhile, 14 states, the District of Columbia and a number of cities have already declared King's birthday a holiday, and there were observances from coast to coast.

In Atlanta, Vice President George Bush was scheduled to lay a wreath in King's honor and pay tribute to his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., while hundreds marched through the streets in support of the holiday.

In Baltimore, 150 persons held an all-night prayer vigil. The Virginia Southern Christian Leadership Conference opened a new office in Hopewell in honor of the day. There were observances in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and other cities.

But many Washingtonians interviewed during the past week seemed to touch on a central, pervasive theme when they indicated that these are especially hard times for talking about a day off.

"I like King. I like what the man stood for," said Leroy Ferguson, a shoe repairman whose shop in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington stays open six days a week. "But I like money, too. It took me too long to get going for me to just take a holiday."

Robert French, a supermarket clerk in Southeast, said he thought King stood for work and jobs, not days off. "The man died trying to help black garbagemen keep their jobs," said French. "Now people want a holiday so these fool children can be out of school and end up unemployed. Let's have a King Day, but make people stay in school an extra hour and let people work overtime."

Ironically, that same issue was raised yesterday on Capitol Hill by Conyers, who first introduced the King holiday bill 15 years ago: What would King have thought?

"The last thing King would have wanted was to see us put so much energy into this when there is so much other work that needs to be done." Still, Conyers said, the issue of honoring a black American with a holiday must be raised.

"We are all here celebrating," he said, "the memory and works and the life of a great man who has given so much to so many."

Washington Post Staff Writer Eve Zibart also contributed to this article.