President Bush on Monday praised Martin Luther King, Jr. (search) as a man who cherished the promises of equality and justice set out by the founding fathers, and marked the holiday in King's name with an award to retiring Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and his wife Alma Powell (search).

"Dr. King so fully believed in the ideals of America that he was offended every day that they were violated. He had studied the founding documents and found no exceptions to the promise of freedom," Bush said during a ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the slain civil rights leader's birthday.

The president hailed the accomplishments of the man who would have been 76 years old on Jan. 15, and whose birthday is celebrated every third Monday in January. Bush praised King as a man who led a movement to make the promise of freedom real.

"In the space of a few years, through the power of his intellect, the truth of his words and the example of his courage, he left his country a different and better place," Bush said.

The president said King was a reverend who knew that man's right to be free is rooted in religious teachings that stand against oppression. He also told the audience that by honoring King's birthday, the next generation learns principles that should thrive.

"We need our children to know how great the struggle for racial justice in our society has been, and how much work remains to be done," Bush said, adding that young people must learn that the greatest causes sometimes involve the greatest sacrifices. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

The president noted that King's was a life well lived, and recognized the lives of two others — Powell and his wife Alma, who received the John Thompson Legacy of a Dream Award (search). The award is named after the former head coach of the Georgetown University men's basketball team and is presented each year to a leader who represents King's ideals and commitment to community service.

He praised the couple, who met on a blind date and married in 1962, and noted that Powell began an exceptional career long before segregation had ended.

Bush recalled how Powell had faced unintentional discrimination as a young lieutenant, when a superior officer told him he was the best black lieutenant he had ever known. Bush quoted Powell's memoirs in which the secretary noted that the officer underestimated Powell if he were comparing him only to black lieutenants and not all of his peers.

In the end, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general, becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (search) and serving in the administrations of six presidents.

Though it turned out that Powell and Bush were often out of step ideologically, particularly on the issue of invading Iraq, Bush said he knew that Powell had the traits to take the role as his secretary of state.

"When I needed a secretary of state, I knew what I was looking for. I wanted someone who believed deeply in the values of our country and could share them with the world. A person of wisdom and decency, a leader who could bring out the best in people. I found all of this and more in Colin Powell," the president said.

Bush's stated view of Powell is shared by the American public. He has remained the most popular administration official in poll after poll throughout Bush's term. His resignation gave Bush the chance to move his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice into the place of top diplomat in the administration.

For his part, Powell, who accepted the award during the ceremony, said King held up a mirror to America and helped it change. And he offered a reminder to young people.

"Never forget what was done for you, black and white, to make this country a better place, to make sure that we are always one day closer to the dream of Dr. King and to the dream of our founding fathers," Powell said.

FOX News' Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.