Bush meets angry opposition as he plants wreath on King’s grave

President Bush placed a wreath at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave Thursday to a chorus of boos from hundreds of mostly black demonstrators, who felt that Bush’s policies run counter to the slain civil rights leader’s beliefs.

Bush’s visit to King’s gravesite on what would have been his 75th birthday also bothered some black lawmakers, who characterized the appearance as a hollow gesture from a president who, in their view, has done little for the African-American community.

The president won only 8 percent of the black vote in 2000, and Thursday’s appearance suggested it will be difficult for him to do better in 2004 with African-Americans or their liberal allies.

“It’s hypocrisy for George Bush to come down here, raise money and do a drive-by at the gravesite,” said Democratic state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, the president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. “It’s not about Dr. King’s legacy, it’s about getting re-elected.”

Bush was received more warmly Thursday morning at New Orleans’ Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where parishioners applauded his entry and departure and laughed at his jokes.

In both cities, Bush attended fund-raisers. They yielded about $2.3 million for his re-election campaign. White House officials said the thrust of the president’s two-state trip was to pay homage to King and to spread the word about his so-called faith-based initiative, which encourages religious organizations to seek federal money for social service programs.

Brooks and several black clergy members in Atlanta accused the White House of barging in on the King ceremonies in Atlanta, inviting themselves and demanding changes in the schedule to accommodate Bush and the Secret Service’s security concerns.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan didn’t address whether Bush had been invited. He said: “We are pleased that Mrs. King and the King Center welcome the president’s visit today as he pays tribute to Dr. King’s legacy and his vision and his lifetime of service.”

The president’s visit to King’s resting place lasted less than 15 minutes. Escorted by Coretta Scott King and Christine Farris, King’s sister, Bush placed a wreath before King’s tomb, bowed his head in prayer briefly and departed.

Hundreds of protesters, black and white, stood across the street from the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, bearing signs that read, “Impeach The Liar,” “Bush Zionist Puppet” and “Money For Jobs And Housing, Not War.”

Five Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority buses parked in front of them blocked their view of the president. Police in riot gear stood atop the vehicles.

If the protesters couldn’t see, they were certainly heard. Before Bush arrived, they chanted “Bush Go Home” and “Peace, Not War.” They booed loudly as the president placed the wreath at King’s tomb.

Administration officials said Bush had been sensitive to the needs of blacks. They cited his “No Child Left Behind” initiative, which is intended to make schools more accountable for student performance, and his faith-based initiative.

“Today would have been [King’s] 75th birthday. It’s important for our country to honor his life and what he stood for,” the president said in New Orleans. “Dr. King understood that faith is a power greater than all others. That’s what he knew.”

Sheriee Bowman, a spokeswoman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suggested that Bush “take a look at Dr. King’s message and create policies that mirror that message.”

She noted that it was on King’s birthday last year that the White House announced its opposition to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy.

“We respect the right for him (Bush) to pay tribute to Dr. King,” Bowman said. “But we question the integrity of the timing.”