Like pilgrims, tens of thousands of people from across the country thronged the Mall on Sunday beneath blue skies to dedicate at last the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

With walking sticks and wheelchairs, in T-shirts and fur coats, crowds poured in for hours, filling 10,000 folding chairs and spilling across a large field adjacent to the memorial on the northwestern shore of the Tidal Basin.

From grandparents to babes in strollers, many carrying backpacks, blankets and banners, they camped out along Independence Avenue when the viewing area filled.

And people of all ages — gray-haired veterans of segregation and those who knew only stories of those times — listened as President Obama announced: “This day, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s return to the National Mall. In this place, he will stand for all time.”

The crowd joined in as the president stood before the memorial’s three-story granite statue of King and, arms locked with the arms of others, sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

The memorial, on a landscaped four-acre site set amid Washington’s Tidal Basin cherry trees, has been a
in the making and is the first on the Mall to honor an African American.

It was a day of emotion, as organizers telecast black-and-white film of King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” to a crowd that included people who had been present for the original or had watched it on television as children.

There were many in the audience who recounted stories of bitter racial oppression experienced in their youth. Many said they never believed a monument to a man like King would be erected.

But they said they were proud that it had finally happened.

It was a day of prayer and song. Singer Aretha Franklin delivered a moving rendition of the gospel hymn “Precious Lord,” which she said was one of King’s favorites. Choirs also performed the African American song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The dedication, originally set for Aug. 28, had been delayed seven weeks because of the Aug. 23 earthquake and then Hurricane Irene.

But, Obama said, “this is a day that would not be denied.”

The original dedication day had been picked to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, during which King delivered the “Dream” speech.

Carved by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, the memorial opened to the public Aug. 22, and, despite some controversy, has been popular with the public.

On Sunday, people began lining up along Independence Avenue in the chilly hours well before dawn to gain entry to the public viewing area, which was outfitted with a stage and huge TV screens just west of the memorial.

Peggy Stovall, 61, who had flown in with a friend from Los Angeles, said she arrived between 2:30 and 3 a.m.

“We were late,” Stovall said as she waited in line, bundled in a coat and scarf against the morning chill. ‘We thought we should get here at 1.”

Stovall, a retired high school teacher, said she flew to Washington in August, only to find that the dedication had been postponed. She said she was determined to come back.

“It’s a historic event,” she said.

A native of Oakland, Calif., and one of seven children, she said she had always wished she could have attended the 1963 march. “We watched it on TV, and I said if anything like that ever happens and I can go, I will go,” Stovall said.

The first person in line was David Carl, 23, of Toronto, an intern at the Canadian Embassy.

Asked why he had come, Carl said, “I really admired Martin Luther King. I want to be able to tell my kids, my grandkids that I was here, that I saw the . . . dedication of this memorial.”

Emma Logan, 62, who was part of a group that had traveled from Atlanta, said King had “opened the door” for Obama’s election. “If it wasn’t for Dr. King, President Obama wouldn’t be here today.

“He opened up all these doors for us and everything, by getting beat up, riding the buses, marching, doing all those things like that,” she said.

Pamela Warner, 56, was part of a 50-person Chicago delegation wearing yellow caps and representing the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

King’s era “represents part of my childhood,” Warner said. She said she was in third grade in 1963, the year of the march. “I’ve always learned from it,” she said. “Teachers, my parents, aunts, uncles, everybody. So this is my time.”

Maureen Forte, 61, director of the Chicago NAN chapter, said: “This is history. We have parents, and grandparents and children here, and each one of them will have a story to take back home and take to their family.”

Sitting in a wheelchair, Jerline Johnson, 72, of Milwaukee, a retired General Motors autoworker, was beside her daughter, Yvette, 48, as the ceremony got underway. Johnson, who is black, speculated on what King would have made of all the fuss.

“I think he would smile and say that we got a long ways to go,” Johnson said.

She said she grew up on a farm in Jackson, Tenn., and well remembers the harshness of segregation. She recalled being relegated to the backs of buses and being barred from “white” water fountains and eating areas.

She recalled visiting a zoo with a white family for which she worked and being forced to wait in the car because blacks were not permitted in the zoo that day. “It was just so many different things,” Johnson said, “so many.”

She said, “We’ve come a long ways. But we still got a long way to go, because there’s so much hatred in some people’s heart. I just wish [King] could have lived longer to see some of the changes that did take place behind what he was trying to get done.”

King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39.

Several members of his family spoke Sunday.

His older sister, Christine King Farris, in a majestic blue hat, introduced herself as the person who knew King longer than anyone else now alive.

“He was my little brother,” she said. “During my life, I watched a baby become a great hero.”

She said she was overwhelmed by “this beautiful monument, which brings honor to our country and hope to future generations.”

Obama spoke shortly after 11 a.m. in a VIP area on the grounds of the memorial, cordoned off from the general public. His speech was broadcast live to the public and on television.

He praised King as the “black preacher with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals.”

As he spoke, the water of the Tidal Basin sparkled in the background and the white contrails of airliners streaked the blue sky overhead.

Earlier, Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the foundation that built the $120 million memorial, spoke about the “dark day” in August when he had to postpone the dedication.

But “joy cometh in the morning,” he said. “And what a glorious morning this is.”

Staff writers Theola Labbé-DeBose, Carol Morello, Hamil Harris and Tim Smith contributed to this report.