MYRTLE BEACH — Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, looking to Monday’s candidates debate, began their day by paying tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., recalling the slain civil rights leader’s courage and vision at a breakfast of community leaders.

Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Gingrich told the audience that the first bill he co-sponsored when he came to Congress was to create the King holiday. He praised King for the “passion of his vision” and noted that King, as both a political activist and a pastor, was “totally committed to freeing human beings and saving human beings.”

Gingrich also pointed to King and other civil rights leaders’ persistence in the face of danger and resistance as they faced beatings and jailing in the segregated South. “No matter how often they were knocked down, they came back,” he said.

Perry picked up on those themes in his remarks. King, he said, “was assaulted, he was jailed, he was ultimately murdered. But he was never silenced.”

He urged the audience to take the opportunity to send messages that highlight the same values that King espoused and pointed to his action as governor of Texas to appoint Wallace Jefferson, the descendant of slaves, as the first African-American justice to the Texas Supreme Court and later to elevate Jefferson to the position of chief justice.

“That is our challenge as Americans,” he said. “Don’t just talk to me. Show me! Show me the power of Martin Luther King. Show me the power of what you believe in your heart.”

Perry and Gingrich will participate in Monday night’s debate along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). Missing will be former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who is quitting the race Monday with plans to endorse Romney.

Near the convention center where the debate will be held, likenesses of the candidates have been sculpted out of sand. At the community breakfast, Brad Dead, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, joked that he wished Huntsman had let them know he wasn’t going to run before they used “20 tons of sand” to build his likeness.

View Photo Gallery: After the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Republican candidates prepare for South Carolina and other primary battles.