Drawing on her own career in education, first lady Laura Bush said Monday that Martin Luther King Jr.'s commitment to education is among his most virtuous characteristics.

Speaking before 2,000 people at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Bush said that while King maintained dignity, bravery and grace in the face of overwhelming bigotry, his belief that "education is the birthright of every American child makes him an even greater figure of influence.

"American history is unimaginable without him. But I must tell you that there's another reason that I hold Martin Luther King Jr., in such high regard; and that is his passionate commitment to education," Bush said.

Monday marks the national holiday to celebrate King's birthday, which falls on Jan. 15. King, among the most widely taught civil rights activist in U.S. history, was assassinated outside a Memphis motel at age 39 in 1968. Today, he would have been 73.

As King's widow Coretta Scott King looked on, Bush said King was a man committed both to peace and change who deeply loved his country despite its "unfulfilled promise" of equality for all its people.

He also used his education to fight against the injustices facing black Americans in the last century.

"As a young black man growing up under Jim Crowe in the middle of the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. turned to the writings of history's greatest philosophers for wisdom and practical guidance. He immersed himself in the thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Russo, Hobbs, Mill and Locke. His incredible education allowed him to become the 20th century's greatest advocate of the American dream and the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence," she said.

Bush said she thought King would be pleased with the recent education reform bill that was signed into law by President Bush earlier this month.

The $26.5 billion package aims to end disparities between students from different races and income levels by requiring all children be tested between grades three and eight. Schools that are not adequately educating students will be given an opportunity to improve but if they fail, low income students will be allowed to take federal funding to move to better performing public schools.

President Bush said Monday that he is also requesting $350 million from Congress for traditionally black and Hispanic colleges and universities, $12 million more than is currently appropriated.

The first lady said that the principles King stood for are critical to children's education today.

"Dr. King also understood that education is about more than reading and writing and arithmetic, even though those are vital. He understood that education is also about shaping children's character, about helping them to become good citizens. Since Dr. King's passing, times have changed, but principles have not."