The Rev. Al Sharpton and several hundred disciples of the civil rights movement used a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast to honor leaders in their ranks and to challenge one another to defend one of King’s main causes, the Voting Rights Act.

Vice President Biden, the keynote speaker at the event, held in the District and sponsored by Sharpton’s National Action Network, talked about how hearts were changed among conservative Southern senators, such as John Stennis (D-Miss.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), to pass one of the single most important bills ever to get through Congress.

Biden recalled a conversation with Stennis about how a long table in his office was used by Southern senators who plotted against the civil rights movement. But Stennis said the passage of the Voting Rights Act lifted a burden from him and other Southern lawmakers. “It freed my soul,” Biden quoted Stennis as saying.

“Voting rights is the foundation stone for political action,” Biden said. “It is the mortar that protects the civil rights stone. They know that the single most important thing was to give us the right to vote.”

In terms of the future, Sharpton said in an interview after the event: “While we are celebrating Dr. King, there are those trying to reverse and retreat on everything that he tried to accomplish. That is why I am so glad that the vice president was at our breakfast emphasizing that he never thought that he would be fighting for voting rights again. We can’t let them put a hole in the holiday by reversing voting rights and our civil rights.”

Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast, hosted by the National Action Network. (The Washington Post)

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the honorees at the event, said many of the issues King spoke up for continue to weigh on Americans today.

“The 2014 anniversary of Dr. King’s birth is such an important marker, both in looking back and looking forward in terms of facing our nation and our community,” Henderson said. “Today, workers are facing challenges like never before. Minimum wage has stagnated. There is a real blockage on unemployment insurance, and we are struggling to get justice in the criminal justice system.”

The other honorees were Maria Teresa Kumar, president and founder of Voto Latino; J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees; Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women; and Larry Thompson, executive vice president of Pepsico.

In addition to King, people at the breakfast honored Nelson Mandela, the South African civil rights leader who helped bring the end of apartheid and became that country’s first black president. Mandela died in December.

Nicole C. Lee, the head of TransAfrica forum, the foreign policy group that led the U.S. disinvestment campaign that helped to end apartheid in South Africa, said there is much to be done around the globe in terms of civil rights.

“So many people around the globe are fighting for people of African descent against these insane economic conditions We are seeing all over the globe that our politics are too divisive. TransAfrica is working with today’s Mandela’s.”

King and Mandela were also remembered during a special Community Worship Service, at the Metropolitan AME Church, where African Americans and immigrants from South Africa shared the pews and stories about their common heritage of overcoming so much.

“President Mandela and Martin Luther King are the two most significant individuals of the generation,” said the Rev. Ronald Braxton, pastor of Metropolitan AME. “They just didn’t move people in their country. They moved the globe.”

During the service, many people were moved as a group of singers from South Africa performed a medley of songs, but in addition to music, many brought first-hand stories of living under apartheid. Mary Moeng, who grew up outside Pretoria, said, “We would not be who we are today if it were not for Mandela.”

During the sermon, the Rev. Joshua Dubois, the former executive director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and who has counseled President Obama, talked about the legacy of King, Mandela and Obama and how many of their most wrenching moments will never be known to the public.

“When we have a major accomplishment, we want to take a picture of it and put it on Facebook. We want to be validated,” said DuBois. “That was exactly the situation that Martin Luther King faced and Mandela faced. For 27 years on Robben Island, when Mandela was breaking rocks, he was finding diamonds.”

And while he was finding real diamonds, Dubois said Mandela was also finding “diamonds of love.”

“The same thing with Dr. King,” said Dubois as he talked about a night when he received a threatening phone call. “That night his faith became so real to him. In that threatening phone call, he had to learn to lean on God.”

Dubois has written a book based on the daily devotional he e-mailed to the president each day. The book offers a peek into how Obama dealt with consoling families after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

“Person after person received a hug from our commander and chief. ‘Tell me about your son, tell me about your daughter,’ he said,” Dubois read from his book. “In each room I saw his eyes water. In each room, over and over again. We spent what seemed like a lifetime in those classrooms and every person received the same hugs, the same sincere offers.

“I remember the toll that it was taking on him. The funny thing is that President Obama has never spoken about these private gatherings. He was almost silent coming back to Washington on Air Force One. It was one of the defining moments of his presidency, but he kept it to himself.”