Several hundred antiapartheid demonstrators at the South African Embassy paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the anniversary of his birth yesterday and then cheered D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's wife Effi, United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber and 15 others as they were arrested during continuing protests at the embassy.

The mayor, who visited the protest site in November to praise the demonstrators, was on hand again yesterday to watch the arrest of his wife and several members of his executive office staff and to pledge his "personal and institutional support" to help end South Africa's system of racial segregation.

Remembering King's birthday and his assassination 17 years ago, Mayor Barry said he and his wife didn't want their 4 1/2-year-old son to grow up "and know that his mother and his father didn't do all they could to crush this evil system."

Nearly 700 prominent officials and other protesters, including more than 200 persons here, have been arrested in 15 cities since the demonstrations began with an embassy sit-in Nov. 21.

Yesterday's demonstrators estimated to number close to 1,000 carried signs and marched in sub-freezing, bone-numbing weather.

A picket line formed on both sides of the 2900 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW, a block south of the four-story embassy complex.

In addition to the 17 people arrested, the protest contingent included members of the Montgomery County Council, including president Michael L. Gudis; leaders of the Montgomery County NAACP; leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Prince George's County; students; D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke and several other city officials; and UAW and other union members.

Despite the temperatures, the protesters were in high spirits, marching and chanting to the beat of drums and acknowledging the honking horns of sympathetic rush-hour motorists.

Memories of King dominated the day, as they chanted, "The dream is still alive in 1985," and sang several choruses of "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem that King and his followers made famous in the 1960s.

"If he were with us today, he would be leading this movement," said Randall Robinson, coordinator of the Free South Africa Movement.

During a news conference shortly before their arrests, the 17 "messengers" scheduled to approach the embassy stood side-by-side, red crepe-paper bands tied around their right arms to symbolize the bloodshed they said has come to blacks in the white-minority-ruled country.

The UAW's Bieber, reaffirming his union's stance against apartheid and recalling King's words while jailed in Birmingham, said he was supporting the protests because "injustice anywhere, is injustice everywhere."

In addition to his wife, some of Barry's top aides, including Pauline Schneider, Gladys Mack, Florence Tate, Annette Samuels and Kathy Williams were arrested and charged with demonstrating within 500 feet of the embassy.

Effi Barry and another woman protester were taken by police car to the 2nd District headquarters. The others went by police van.

The mayor rode with the group as they went by bus to the front of the embassy and tried to visit the ambassador.

He and D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner watched from the sidewalk as city police took the protesters into custody.

"The D.C. government has to carry out the responsibilities of the law," said Barry.

But, he added, in a reference to police cooperation in the highly orchestrated protest, "the officers are sympathetic."