President Clinton shed the defiance that characterized the televised address following his August 17 grand jury testimony for a more humble tone when he spoke about forgiveness to a diverse gathering of more than 500 Vineyard residents and visitors at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Friday.

The President’s remarks came as part of a commemorative celebration of the 35th anniversary of the march on Washington, at which civil rights leader and Georgia Cong. John Lewis was the keynote speaker. The event brought together everyone from two dozen local elementary school students and Vineyard elected officials to such dignitaries as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Anita Hill and Dr. Charles Ogletree Jr. — who was the program’s moderator.

“All of you know, I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of forgiveness,” President Clinton said to both laughter and applause. “It gets a little easier the more you do it. And if you have a family, an administration, a Congress and a whole country to ask you, you’re going to get a lot of practice.

“But I have to tell you that in these last days, it has come home to me, again, something I first learned as President, but it wasn’t burned in my bones, and that is that in order to get it, you have to be willing to give it.

“The anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you, they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds,” the President continued. “And so it is important that we are able to forgive those we believe have wronged us, even as we ask for forgiveness from people we have wronged. And I heard that first — first — in the civil rights movement: ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

The 24-minute speech was the President’s only extended public appearance during the First Family’s 12-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, which ended Sunday. The speech, an impromptu rewrite of one prepared by his aides, was broad in content, touching on everything from Mr. Clinton’s personal recollection of the events of August 28, 1963 — when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, to the United States’ recent attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan, to the effects of global economic interdependency.

It was President Clinton’s indirect references to his struggles with the political intrusions of independent counsel Kenneth Starr upon his private life, however, that moved an already enthusiastic crowd to become unrestrained in its support for Mr. Clinton.

A hot and muggy afternoon did not stop the people lining the octagonal chapel’s second-floor balcony from cheering wildly throughout the one and one half hours of the program. Nor did it deter those on the ground floor from standing for frequent moments of extended applause. At the program’s end, the one-room church quickly turned into a post-concert mob scene as people climbed over other people and onto chairs for a chance to shake the President’s hand. Outside, several brief showers had not dampened the spirits of another several hundred supporters, who swarmed the President — closely guarded by Secret Service agents — when he left the building.

“I just liked him all over again,” said Elaine Weintraub, a historian of the Island’s African-American cultural heritage and an executive board member of the NAACP. “I’ve been neutral over the last few weeks, but I recommitted today. He’s such a people’s President. I loved it when he said that he doesn’t read so good anymore, that he doesn’t write so good. The people outside laughed with him. They relate to him. The bottom line is I think it’s wonderful that he honored Doctor King like that.”

“The whole thing was very moving,” said Eva Vogel of New York. “Especially when he talked about what he learned not from being a President but from the civil rights movement — he kept coming back to this point. He’s a very charismatic speaker.”

“He won them over,” said Dean K. Denniston Sr., vice-president of the chapel. “He was typical President Clinton. Of course, he was among friendly people. When he comes to the Island, it’s like coming home.”

The gathering found President Clinton’s description of his visit with South African leader Nelson Mandela particularly compelling.

“I never will forget one of the most — I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about this in public before, but I — one of the most meaningful, personal moments I’ve had as President was a conversation I had with Nelson Mandela,” President Clinton said. “And I said to him — I said, you know, I’ve read your book and I’ve heard you speak, and you spent time with my wife and daughter, and you’ve talked about inviting your jailers to your inauguration. And I said, it’s very moving, and I said, you’re a shrewd as well as a great man. But, come on, now, how did you really do that? You can’t make me believe you didn’t hate those people who did that to you — for 27 years.

“He said, I did hate them for quite a long time. After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife and it eventually broke my family up. They kept me from seeing my children grow up. He said, for quite a long time I hated them.

“And then he said, I realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me — everything — but my mind and my heart. Now, those things I would have to give away. And I simply decided I would not give them away.”

As a speaker, Mr. Lewis was equally powerful, transporting the audience back to the mid-century, rural South with his stories about growing up as the son of an Alabama tenant farmer. The same man, hardened by threats, arrests and physical torture as a civil rights leader, charmed the audience with an account of how as a boy he preached to his father’s chickens to prepare himself for the ministry. Given recent despair over a perceived deterioration of race relations in America, Mr. Lewis’ most potent message was one aimed at the younger members of the gathering.

“The [segregationist] signs that I saw in 1963, in 1964 those signs were gone, and they will not return,” said Mr. Lewis, who spent the better part of the afternoon signing copies of his book, Walking With the Wind. “We live in a better nation, a better place, we are better people because Martin Luther King stood on August 28, 1963 and said I have a dream that is deeply rooted in the American Dream. We shared that dream. And we will continue to struggle to make this dream become a living reality. As a nation, and as a people, we will lay down the burden of race.

“We have come a distance. Let nobody tell you that we have not made progress towards laying down the burden of race,” Mr. Lewis said. “I say to all of you young people, 35 years later, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t give out, don’t become bitter, don’t get lost in the sea of despair. Keep the faith. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold onto your dreams. Walk with the wind. Let the stories of history be your guide.”

Earlier in the program, Marianne Larned, editor of Stone Soup for the World: Life-Changing Stories of Kindness & Courageous Acts of Service, spoke about the need for role models in today’s society. Island residents also participated in the commemoration: nine-year-old Sebastian Corwin presented a biography of Dr. King, local singers Sabrina Luening and Elza Minor led the audience in He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and We Shall Overcome. Vineyard students Giles Welch, Olivia Lew and Mia Gonsalves read excerpts of the speeches Dr. King and Rep. Lewis delivered at the march on Washington. Rebecca Chastang, a summer visitor to the Vineyard, gave Mr. Clinton a copy of Congressman Lewis’ book.

At the beginning of the event, Mr. Ogletree set the stage for a warm Presidential reception by chronicling Mr. Clinton’s accomplishments while in office.

“The President has a lot of fairweather friends, but this is not a fairweather crowd,” Mr. Ogletree said. “Now it’s a difficult time and I want you to know that the people here understand your pain, believe in redemption and are here with you through thick and through thin.”