President Bush observed what would have been the 73rd birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with ceremonies and policy actions Monday.

Surrounded by members of the King family, the president accepted a portrait of the late civil rights leader for the White House, signed a proclamation commemorating King's birthday, and hailed the activist as a "modern American hero" who not only helped to remake America's laws but changed American hearts.

"He believed that whatever one would change, one must first love. And he loved America," Bush said.

The ceremony was held in the East Room, where 38 years before, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act with a pen he then gave to King.

"It'd be easy to forget the great obstacles he overcame, and the years of effort and the daily courage that turned a cause into a movement. Perhaps without Martin Luther King there might still have been a Civil Rights Act. There's no doubting that the law came as it did when it did because of him," Bush said.

King, a Baptist minister from Atlanta whose speeches, writings, boycotts, marches and other activities helped desegregate American life through passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other landmark laws, was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

The event sparked riots across the country as well as debates that continue to this day about who was behind the murder.

Earlier on in the day, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church where King once preached, first lady Laura Bush told an overflow crowd that American history is unimaginable without him.

She said the education bill her husband signed in Hamilton, Ohio, earlier this month, would have won King's approval.

Bush has been working hard to get the approval of African Americans, who gave him less than 10 percent of their vote in the 2000 election, when critics spotlighted his position that it was up to South Carolina residents to decide whether the Confederate battle flag should fly above the capital dome.

South Carolinians continue to debate the issue. Some condemn the decision to remove the flag from the dome while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to boycott the state for displaying the flag at another spot on the capital grounds.

But the president is no longer associated with the issue, and on Monday his administration made another appeal to minorities when it unveiled plans to steer more than $350 million in federal funds to historically black colleges and universities. That's an increase of $12 million from last year.

Bush has pledged to increase funding for minority institutions by 30 percent over his first term.

Since the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, Bush's job approval rating among African Americans has doubled from 31 to 72 percent according to some polls, suggesting to his advisors that gains are possible there in his 2004 re-election bid.

Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Wendell Goler serves as a senior White House and foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC), joining the network in 1996.