Bush honors King in Md.

President joins in service at African-American church in Landover

Despite progress, `more to do'

Ehrlich also attends as GOP seeks to bolster standing with black voters

January 21, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LANDOVER - President Bush spent yesterday morning at an African-American church in Maryland, honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and seeking to repair his party's image with minority groups.

Holding a microphone in front of the congregation of 500 at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Bush said it was "fitting that we honor this great American in a church, because out of the church comes the notion of equality and justice."

"Even though progress has been made," Bush said, "there is more to do. There are still people in society who hurt. There is still prejudice holding people back."

Before speaking, Bush observed the rest of the service seated in a section with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a fellow Republican. Efforts by their party to mend relations with black voters have intensified recently in the aftermath of racially charged remarks made by Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.

Many African-Americans were also angered by two recent decisions by the White House. This month, Bush decided to renominate Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering, whose record has been attacked by civil rights leaders, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And last week, the White House filed briefs at the Supreme Court in opposition to affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan.

The president received warm applause when introduced yesterday, with the Rev. John K. Jenkins Sr. saying, "You will never know what your visit did for us."

Some worshipers were not so enthusiastic. Pat Williams, 51, a church member for 18 years, said, "I guess it's an honor" that Bush appeared at her church.

"If my pastor agrees to let him come, I'll back my pastor," Williams said, adding she was disappointed that Bush did not support the admissions policies at the University of Michigan, which have been challenged by white students who say they were unfairly denied admission at the university.

"I don't want to try and read someone's mind, but you can't stop affirmative action and still honor Dr. King," said Williams, a Democrat. Asked whether the congregation was excited about Bush's appearance, Williams said, "not really."

Rebecca Holley, a 40-year-old congregant, called it an "honor" to see Bush. She said that she did not agree with his position on the University of Michigan but that "he's in a very awkward position, and he's not going to please everybody."

The church occupies a converted Hechinger store near FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, and has substantial outreach programs, including a prison ministry and ministries to feed the homeless.

The president took the opportunity to pitch his plan to open more federal funding to faith-based charities that provide social services. "This government of yours," Bush said, "must welcome faith, not discriminate [against] faith, as we deal with the future of this great country."

When Jenkins, the pastor, introduced Bush and Ehrlich, the majority of congregants applauded. But they reserved their loudest cheers for White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who are African-American.

The president seemed eager to participate in the service, bobbing his head to gospel music. He clapped with the audience after King, in a long video presentation of his famous speeches, said, "Thank God almighty, we are free at last." King, who was assassinated in 1968, would have been 74 last Wednesday.

Speaking after Jenkins, Bush used the cadence of a pastor himself, pausing after each phrase to let the audience shout in support or offer an "amen."

Jenkins offered an emotional tribute to King, telling congregants about the opportunities they have today, thanks to "the sacrifice he made with his life."

"Don't take for granted the educational opportunities provided for you," Jenkins said, not mentioning affirmative action specifically. "Don't squander the opportunity to go to school. Many of the opportunities were not available to your forefathers."

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