Thousands in the Washington area paid tribute yesterday to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- with parades, proclamations, speeches and songs; with a noontime ringing of church bells that echoed through the District, and with greater resolve to make real his dream of freedom and racial equality.

It was the third federal holiday in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader who was gunned down on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis April 4, 1968. He would have been 59 last Friday.

In the nation's capital -- where two decades ago fires, looting and death punctuated the news of his killing -- blacks, whites, Hispanics and others joined to celebrate King's life and to recommit themselves to the work he left undone.

At the Washington Convention Center, two blocks off the riot-scarred 7th Street corridor, an estimated 3,500 people gathered for a morning of songs and speeches. Electronic sign boards helped set the mood for the day with the flashing message: "Happy Birthday Martin Luther King. The Dream Still Lives."

At a birthday parade down the streets of Anacostia in far Southeast Washington, Redskins quarterback and honorary parade grand marshal Doug Williams told a cheering crowd, "I'm just glad that I am going to be one part of Martin Luther King's dream," by being one of the first black quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl.

At a food serving line in front of the Martin Luther King Library in downtown Washington, three college students celebrated the day by organizing a free meal for more than 400 homeless persons.

"We wanted to create a positive atmosphere . . . in the spirit of love and compassion," said Marya McQuirter, who worked with her sister Tracye McQuirter and a friend, Walter McGill, on the meal project.

At the Lincoln Memorial, King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech again resounded from the imposing marble walls -- played on a small tape recorder for a visiting group of students.

Absent was the throng of more than 250,000 who cheered its delivery nearly 25 years ago, but there was still enough electricity in the message to stir the freedom fervor in a Miami teen-ager born three years after King's death.

"I think what he stood for is really important, especially then, and right now," said Angela Cortines, 17. "I even got goose bumps listening to it because he brought up the fact that even though they {blacks} were not bound by slavery, they were still treated like dirt."

Suburban jurisdictions also held special events. Several hundred people gathered at the Reston Community Center for an all-day seminar on minority-related issues. The Montgomery County Human Relations Commission sponsored a special program on King.

The District celebration included a quarter-peal by the Washington Ringing Society at the Washington Cathedral, a benefit luncheon and fashion show at the Grand Hyatt Hotel downtown, and a birthday luncheon at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw.

Around the country, the holiday in honor of King's birth inspired marches, special services and an outpouring of sentiments.

In Atlanta, Coretta Scott King and her children participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at her husband's tomb. After the graveside ceremony, the King family went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which King was once pastor, for the 20th annual ecumenical service since King's assassination.

In Arizona, thousands of marchers waded two miles through flooded streets to demand that King's birthday be restored as a holiday in their state. The holiday was repealed last year by Republican Gov. Evan Mecham.

And in New York City, hundreds of demonstrators marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to demand the appointment of a special state prosecutor for racial violence. Racial tensions were heightened in December when three white teen-agers were convicted of manslaughter in the December 1986 death of a black man that prosecutors said was racially motivated.

But those participating in the Washington celebration -- while noting that King's dream has not been fulfilled -- emphasized racial harmony and the need for blacks and whites to work together on such issues as the growing number of homeless people, violence in society and illegal use of drugs.

Renee Nance, 24, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, said she had been so moved by the singing at the Convention Center that it "brought tears to my eyes."

Nance said the program had been so powerful that she "felt like I should go and hug a white person." She said she was even ready to "forgive and forget what Jimmy the Greek {Snyder} said."

Snyder, who was fired Saturday by CBS Sports for his comments that blacks were "bred" for sports, was cited by several speakers yesterday as evidence of continued racism in the United States.

Mayor Marion Barry, speaking at the Convention Center, said that Snyder had said what "others have been thinking all the time."

But Barry went on to urge biracial support for King's legacy. "Let the word go forth that this holiday is not just for black Americans," Barry said.

With his wife Effi and their son Christopher seated on the platform behind him, Barry told the crowd how his life had been changed by an encounter with King in February 1960.

At that time, Barry, who grew up and graduated from college in Tennessee, was a graduate student and considering participating in a demonstration near the campus. "In those days they didn't have small billy clubs; they had {clubs like} baseball bats," Barry said. "I was scared to death. I wasn't sure I should go."

But after King addressed the students at the college, Barry went forward with the demonstration as he had planned and eventually helped organize and lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"I want to thank Dr. King for making a profound difference in my life," Barry said.

Other speakers included Marvin Fauntroy, 22, son of Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.). The elder Fauntroy was one of King's lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"I wasn't old enough to know what it felt like to have to sit at the back of the bus, to be bowled over from water shooting out of a fire hose, to be bitten by a police dog or humiliated daily by some sick racist," said Marvin Fauntroy.

"But I do know how I would feel if I walked into a restaurant and was told I couldn't eat because I was black," Fauntroy said.

To loud applause, Fauntroy said that if King were alive today he would "cry out against the drug pushers and the pimps who kill our brothers with their wicked potions and make whores of our sisters."

The King holiday, Fauntroy said, is "a day to keep striving to make this place a better place to live, a day to live the dream."

Among those listening to Fauntroy and Barry were James and Alma Lacey and their three children, LaKita, 17, Reagan, 11, and Arnetria, 6. The family drove 25 miles from their home in Dale City to attend the event. They agreed that it was impressive.

"My only disappointment," said James Lacey, who operates a computer services company, "is that there weren't more people here. There should be overflow. There should be people standing shoulder to shoulder."

From the Convention Center, many walked over to a nearby hotel for the annual benefit luncheon sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. D.C. Support Group.

Helen Tate, president of the local group, said that half of the proceeds from the lunch will go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non- Violent Social Change in Atlanta and about half will be used for college scholarships for four District of Columbia students.

Tate said that the addition of the fashion show to the annual luncheon had more than tripled the attendance. Last year, about 100 persons paid $10 each to attend the lunch held at a local church, Tate said. This year, about 350 people attended the lunch and fashion show, which cost $35 per ticket and was held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, she said.

Many of the tickets were purchased by patrons, including Howard University, the Israeli Embassy, Ford Motor Co. and the Potomac Electric Power Co.

Guests for the event included Yaa Densua, who works at the Children's Defense Fund, and her husband Kofi Boakye, who is employed as a city building inspector. They said they had spent the morning listening to a radio station play excerpts from King speeches.

A few blocks from the hotel luncheon, Charlotte Dutton, an elderly woman, and Cheeco Lewis, a young man, were sampling the menu of turkey, chicken, soup, bread and vegetables served by "We Feed Our People," the group formed by the concerned students, McGill and the McQuirter sisters.

"People are here because they are hungry and they need this food," Lewis said. "This is a beautiful celebration for all people."

Staff writers Lynne Duke, Paul Duggan, Mary Jordan and Athelia Knight contributed to this report.