ATLANTA -- That the nation stood on the brink of war on the birth date of a celebrated man of peace was a stinging racial irony that Cedric Williams took quite personally.

Williams, 29, strolled with a friend through the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where they signed the "Living the Dream Pledge," the one about "Loving, not hating; showing understanding, not anger; making peace, not war."

It was the pledge that, in a poster-sized display, bears the signature of George Bush.

Williams said he did not know which was worse: if President Bush and United Nations officials knew their Jan. 15 war deadline fell on King's birthday and let it stand regardless, or if the day's dual significance was coincidence.

In either case, Williams said, the day carried with it a special jab, since there are so many blacks among those waiting in the Saudi desert a heartbeat away from battle. King's life's work "was not just something that blacks benefited from, and yet what is happening is it's not even being respected by our president."

Here on Auburn Avenue, where King was born and raised, there were widespread sentiments among blacks that their interests, their symbols once again had been made marginal.

While the national King holiday is Monday, many prefer to honor him on his birth date. He would have been 62 yesterday.

The King center's Freedom Hall was the scene of a teach-in for educators today and the center's grounds were visited by a steady stream of schoolchildren. Some of them too seemed distressed by this clash between the principles of peace and the realities of war.

"We have this teach-in about Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence, and yet what they {the visitors} may see today is that we {the nation} are promoting violence," said Christine King Farris, King's sister, a center official.

Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, has called timing of the deadline "inappropriate," and last week began publicly urging King supporters to use the time of his commemoration to launch a new anti-war movement "with the same fervor that brought an end to the Vietnam War."

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and King's longtime colleague, led a peace march through Atlanta, where he said, "How dare they put a deadline" on King's birth date.

Later, when the march ended at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached, his widow told a multiracial crowd of 1,000, "Let us serve notice tonight from Atlanta that we are going to fill the streets and even the jails if necessary to stop the militarization of U.S. foreign policy." Those present then held a candlelight vigil at King's crypt.

Angela Coleman, visiting the King center with Williams, has a brother who is a soldier stationed in the gulf. "I'm scared about the fact that this is the day that war may break out," said Coleman, an office worker. "It's scary . . . . It's scary."