Bush, seeking black votes, hears boos at King's grave

After La. campaign stops, president greeted in Ga. with chants of `Go home'

January 16, 2004|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATLANTA - Shouting "Bush go home," hundreds of demonstrators lined the sidewalk yesterday along historic Auburn Avenue - once the hub of the civil rights movement - to protest President Bush's visit to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been the slain leader's 75th birthday.

Though the group included anti-war protesters, environmental groups and human rights activists, much of the crowd consisted of African- Americans who said they opposed the president's visit because his policies have gone against most of the values that King stood for.

"He is desecrating Dr. King's grave by placing a wreath there," said longtime civil rights activist Billy McKinney. "It's all political. Why else would he come here when he was not invited?"

Bush, accompanied by King's widow, Coretta Scott King and other family members, appeared unfazed by the demonstrators, who were kept behind barricades across the street and blocked from view by several large city buses. Still, their chants and boos could be heard throughout the area.

As several presidents have done in the past, Bush placed the wreath in front of the crypt, located in the middle of a reflecting pool on the grounds of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. He stood briefly in silent prayer before being whisked away to attend a $2,000-a-plate re-election fund-raiser at which Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, served as host.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president wanted to pay tribute to "Dr. King's legacy, his vision and his lifetime of service."

The discord over the president's visit began this week when the Secret Service told organizers of a tribute to King that the event planned months ago at Ebenezer Baptist Church next door to the crypt would have to end at 2 p.m. rather than the scheduled 4 p.m. to accommodate the president's visit. On Wednesday, organizers reached a compromise with the Secret Service, which allowed the event to continue as planned with restricted public access.

Sheriee Bowman, a spokeswoman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the organization founded by King respected the president's right to pay tribute but questioned the timing.

On Jan. 16, 2003, Bush delivered a blow to affirmative action in higher education when his administration filed a legal brief condemning racial preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan.

"We question the integrity of the timing of the move because last year at this time, he took a stand against affirmative action, ... which is part of Dr. King's legacy," Bowman said. "Dr. King had a philosophy and left a message. We urge the president to take a look at Dr. King's message and to create policies that mirror that message."

While a spokesman for the King Center said that no formal invitation had been extended to Bush, the family accepted his offer to come.

Coretta Scott King declined to comment on the president's visit, but she has vocally opposed the war in Iraq, saying it conflicted with her husband's principles of nonviolence.

Leaders of the MLK March Committee, a group of King allies that sponsors several events leading up to the official holiday, protested at the site Wednesday and yesterday. Some leaders said they hoped the demonstration would rally African-Americans to the polls in November and force Bush out of office.

"The policies of this administration are in direct opposition to everything Dr. King lived, died and worked for, from human rights to war, poverty and criminal justice," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, president of Concerned Black Clergy in Atlanta. "It is good that our voices are being heard in protest, but the greatest place to be heard is at the polls."

Before arriving in Atlanta, the president led a round-table forum on his faith-based initiatives program at Union Bethel AME, a historically black church in New Orleans. Several participants commended the president for an executive order that made it easier for faith-based organizations to acquire federal funding for social programs.

Bush's four-stop swing through Georgia and Louisiana allowed him face time with two important constituencies - religious conservatives, who make up his base of support, and black voters, only 9 percent of whom supported him in 2000. Events in both states were paired with fund-raisers, which raised $2.3 million for his campaign.

Wire services contributed to this article. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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