Bush marks Civil Rights Act anniversary

Kerry campaign critical of president's record on combating discrimination

July 02, 2004|By Edwin Chen | Edwin Chen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - President Bush led a White House celebration yesterday of the 40th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in public facilities.

Speaking in the East Room, the most formal setting in the White House, Bush called the day "a great anniversary of justice and equality in America," adding that the law had been "a long time in coming."

Before the law was passed, he said, "the conscience of America had to be awakened ... stirred by men and women who held sit-ins at lunch counters, who rode the buses on Freedom Rides, who endured and overcame the slurs and the fire hoses and the burning crosses."

One of those activists, Rep. John Lewis, was noticeably absent from the event. Lewis, who had been a student civil rights organizer, was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

An aide to the Georgia Democrat said yesterday that the White House did not send "notification" of its event to Lewis' office until midday Tuesday, and by then the congressman had commitments in Atlanta.

Also absent was Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had a rocky relationship with the White House. His office also said he received his notification too late.

Democrats, led by the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry, the party's presumed presidential nominee, and party chairman Terry McAuliffe, criticized Bush's civil rights record.

Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman, said, "When it comes to civil rights, the gap between what George Bush likes to tout and what he's actually done is enormous. The fact is that the president has turned the clock back on civil rights."

The campaign said Bush had appointed judges to the federal bench "who want to roll back civil rights" and it had supported court action to block affirmative action in university admissions.

"The Bush administration has failed to make civil rights a priority," McAuliffe said. "They have failed in housing, with discrimination complaints reaching an all-time high. They have failed American women by not challenging many sex discrimination cases in employment."

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed the criticism as campaign rhetoric and predicted that Bush would improve his showing among blacks in November. Four years ago, Bush won only 9 percent of the black vote.

In 1994, Bush won just 15 percent of the black vote when running for governor of Texas. But four years later, he increased his support among black voters to 27 percent.

"After he had been in office and the people saw his record of accomplishment in terms of providing equal opportunity for all people in the state, those numbers went up significantly," McClellan said.

He said Bush's civil rights achievements included the passage of the No Child Left Behind education reform act, "vigorous enforcement" of civil rights laws by the Justice Department and a goal to increase minority homeownership by 5.5 million households in this decade.

Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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