Kathy Nicholas had planned to pay quiet tribute Thursday at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. So had President Bush. The combination was anything but quiet.
Nicholas was among about 700 people who booed, chanted and beat drums near the typically placid grave site, angry that Bush was there on what would have been the slain civil rights leader’s 75th birthday.
“When I heard Bush was coming here I couldn’t believe it. I was outraged and disgusted, and I just think it’s a photo op. It’s so transparent,” said Nicholas, a flight attendant who brought a sign that read: “Mr. Bush, May Dr. King’s spirit rise up n welcome you, touch you n speak to you.”
The protesters pushed past Secret Service barricades. They pounded on the sides of three city buses parked on the street in front of King’s tomb to block them from the president’s motorcade.
Two people were arrested for stepping into the street and refusing to move.
While the protest was loud, no one was injured, and the crowd dispersed soon after the president’s 15-minute stop.
Bush’s visit to observe King’s birthday upset some civil rights activists who said the president’s policies on Iraq, affirmative action and funding for social services conflict with King’s legacy. They also complained that the scheduling conflicted with their own plans to honor King.
“If Dr. King was here today, he’d be protesting too,” said Petite Hammonds, a protester from Atlanta.
Officials at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the organization found by King’s widow, said they extended no formal invitation to Bush but accepted his offer to come.
'Miracle of salvation'
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president’s visit was a way to pay tribute to “Dr. King’s legacy, his vision and his lifetime of service.
Earlier Thursday, in New Orleans, President Bush said the “miracle of salvation” is the key to solving some of society’s most intractable problems as he sought increased support among black voters with a renewed push for his plan to let religious charities in on more federal spending.
Bush used himself as an example of the good that religion can do, referencing his own decision to stop drinking at age 40 “because I changed my heart.”
President defends faith-based programs
“My attitude is, the government should not fear faith-based programs — we ought to welcome faith-based programs, and we ought to fund faith-based programs,” he said from the pulpit of the packed Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in a run-down neighborhood near downtown. “Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith. It’s important for our government to understand that.”
The president appeared at a luncheon at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, where protesters shouted outside, and later was headed to an evening reception at an Atlanta hotel for a second fund-raiser that would bring his day’s total take to $2.3 million for his already bulging campaign account.
At Union Bethel, in a speech laced with religious references — and at a meeting with community leaders — Bush promoted his desire to open more federal spending on social programs to religious groups.
He said the church’s many efforts — such as feeding the homeless, teaching neighborhood children karate and running a day-care center — are perfect examples of the kind of programs the federal government should fund.
“Problems that face our society are oftentimes problems that, you know, require something greater than just a government program or a government counselor to solve,” he said. “Intractable problems, problems that seem impossible to solve, can be solved. There is the miracle of salvation that is real, that is tangible, that is available for all to see.”
Bush has sought legislation to give religious groups access to federal funds as long as their services are available to anyone, but without requiring them to make fundamental changes. The proposal got a cold reception in Congress, and lawmakers put forward instead a package of tax incentives for charitable giving.
While that measure awaits approval, Bush has used executive orders and new regulations to remove many of the barriers — such as being required to ban all religious activities and adjust hiring practices — that have kept religious groups from competing for federal grants. Bush announced Thursday that the Justice Department has finalized just such regulations affecting $3.7 billion in funding, primarily for programs that help crime victims, prevent child victimization and promote safe schools.
Some opponents of the policy fear the government will wind up paying to support religion.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Bush is trying to overturn two centuries of church-state separation required by the Constitution and institute “taxpayer-subsidized job discrimination” by allowing taxpayer-funded groups to hire and fire based on religious belief.
Two important blocs
For Bush, the issue is aimed at appealing to two important constituencies: religious conservatives, who make up his base of support, and black voters, only 9 percent of whom supported him in 2000.
Indeed, Bush almost always chooses black churches in poor neighborhoods as the setting to talk about his initiative.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said Bush’s policies on the Iraq war, affirmative action and social service funding have been “in direct contradiction to the King legacy.”
“It’s wonderful to come lay a wreath, but there must be a commitment beyond laying the wreath,” Brooks said.
“It’s important for our country to honor his life and what he stood for,” Bush said at the New Orleans church.