A tribute Sunday to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the United Methodist Church in Westport soared with the spirit of the slain civil-rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who inspired generations of people to fight non-violently for civil rights and social justice.

The 7th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, sponsored by the Interfaith Council and Clergy of Westport-Weston, paid tribute to King a day ahead of the national holiday that honors his legacy. King, who was assassinated in April 1968, was commemorated in a program that used his inspiring words as well as the music and poetry of others.

Those in the audience of about 160 people heard Gregg Cork read the text of King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech, and still felt the power of King's words delivered decades earlier in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone," Cork read from King's speech.

"It's so moving just to hear, right now, especially with what's going on in the world on so many different levels, that message of love being reiterated; the power of love, to hear a larger community re-echo it. That's what needs to be out there more and more," said Emily Hull of Norwalk, who was emotionally moved during the event, which fell on what would have been King's 83rd birthday.

The local King tribute began with Westport actress and singer Kimberly Wilson leading a procession of about 20 people, holding signs related to the civil-rights era and singing "We Shall Overcome," into the sanctuary.

The Rev. Ed Horne, co-chairman of the Interfaith Council and senior pastor of United Methodist Church, reminded the crowd that a monument to the nation's "greatest civil-rights champion" was dedicated last year in Washington, D.C. "Dedicating a memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall is of great symbolic importance. Teaching our children about the great movement that Dr. King led is a national imperative," Horne said.

Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, of the Conservative Synagogue in Westport, said photos and film footage have frozen in time the civil-rights movement, "an era when people risked their lives to end the crippling system of segregation and to secure the rights and privileges fundamental to American citizenship.

"It's important that we realize that individuals, acting collectively, can move powerful institutions to change," he said.

Peggy Jorgensen, a teacher at Weston Middle School who co-produced the celebration with her sister, Wilson, gave the audience a history lesson about the discrimination that forced black Americans to drink from separate water fountains, eat at different public spaces, ride in the back of a bus and banned them from swimming in whites-only pools and beaches.

Wilson said racist attitudes persist to this day, although some discrimination is more subtle now. Jorgensen reminded people that the Ku Klux Klan still exists, even in Connecticut.

In a voice that bore close resemblance to that of poet Maya Angelou, Wilson recited the writer, actress and activist's poem "Still I Rise" and sang the hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Other musical performances were by Samantha Smith, a Joel Barlow High School student, who played piano and sang "Bridge over Troubled Water;" Petra Jarrar, 14, of Bridgeport, who accompanied herself on the guitar as she sang John Lennon's "Imagine;" Jennifer Foster of First Church of Christ Scientist in Westport, who sang a traditional spiritual "Witness," and Ashley Snow, a Staples High School student, who sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" a cappella.

Felix Jarrar, 16, Petra's brother, performed on piano a musical piece titled, "Fantasy on Deep River." Isaiah Nieves, 15, and Luis Cruz, 13, both ABC (A Better Chance) scholars at Staples High School, recited excerpts from King's "How Long, Not Long " speech in Montgomery, Al., in March 1965. A Better Chance, which provides educational opportunities for talented and motivated students of color, benefited from a free-will offering, which was shared with Saugatuck Congregational Church for its efforts to rebuild after a fire last November seriously damaged its building.

The Weston Middle School students, who joined in processions entering and leaving the service, also figured prominently in another aspect of the observance. After the service, a reception was held at which the students set up "A Walk through Time." It featured their projects on historical events that influenced or were part of the civil-rights movement.

"Martin Luther King preached non-violence and in this world where we see so much violence I think his message is incredibly important to get out, that you can fight hate with love," said Ursula Alwang, 14, whose project was on the U.S. Supreme Court decision that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional.

Organizers said it is important to underscore the dream of equality envisioned by King because the current generation can be apathetic and complacent. Wilson said this year's celebration infused the sanctuary with "spirit" and "love," a message that resonates with people from diverse social, economic and spiritual backgrounds.