Songs, angry words mark King rally 'Ugly face of racism,' recession lamented

January 18, 1992|By Douglas Jehl | Douglas Jehl,Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA -- Singing and swaying to the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," President Bush linked arms with the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday in an appeal for black votes and a bid to ease the racial strains of his civil rights policies.

But at a ceremony in honor of the federal holiday commemorating Dr. King's birth, the president ran into sharp reminders of dissatisfaction with what still remains undone.

"How dare we celebrate!" asked the Rev. Bernice King, the slain civil rights leader's daughter, in an angry benediction, pointing to the tens of millions of Americans who are functionally illiterate or do not have health care.

"How dare we celebrate!" she repeated again and again, "when the ugly face of racism still peeks out at us . . . [and] in the midst of recession when nobody is even sure whether their job is secure."

Ms. King's remarks, at the conclusion of the ceremony at the Martin Luther King Center here, were not directed explicitly at Mr. Bush. But as she spoke of tasks to be tackled "after we have finished politicking," there seemed little doubt as to her intended target.

Mr. Bush listened impassively as the young preacher spoke. He did not appear to join in the murmured chorus of "Amen" that followed.

The president angered some black leaders last year with his steadfast opposition to civil rights legislation that he labeled a "quota bill." But he signed a version of the legislation, has made a point of reaching out to black voters and was generally well-received before an audience of 200 and in laying a wreath at Dr. King's grave.

"Yes, too much prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism and blind hatred still exist in our land," Mr. Bush said. "Martin preached something different, but they still exist in our land. And as president I'm trying, and all of us must pledge to root out bigotry wherever we find it."

He sought to cast his administration's policies on the family and education as the heirs to a tradition established by Dr. King. Mr. Bush won praise from Coretta Scott King for his support of the federal holiday honoring her late husband.

As he linked arms and sang with Mrs. King to one side and Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan on the other, he offered a visual testimonial to the civil rights movement -- and a telegenic image of a Republican president at ease in a sea of black faces.

But even as he arrived in what in recent years has been a solid Republican South, there were indications that he faced bitterness -- not just among black voters, but also within his political base.

A poll published in yesterday's editions of the Atlanta Constitution detailed a 20-point drop in Mr. Bush's approval rating across 12 Southern states in the last four months. It also found a near-doubling in the number of those who believe the country is on the wrong track.

While his 55 percent approval rating in the South remains higher than in the nation as a whole, the decline means a Democratic challenger, particularly Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, could prove a tough opponent in the region.

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