Published on Thursday, January 15, 2004 by the New York Times
Bush Plan to Honor Dr. King Stirs Criticism
by Jeffrey Gettleman and Ariel Hart
ATLANTA, Jan. 15 — When President Bill Clinton came to town on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, crowds poured into the streets to watch him lay a wreath at the foot of Dr. King's grave.
Many of Atlanta's civil rights leaders are outraged about Mr. Bush's planned visit to commemorate Dr. King's 75th birthday and are using the occasion for protests. Already, they have marched with bullhorns, signs and thumping drums, shouting for the president to stay away.
"His administration has never supported anything to help the poor, education, or children," said the Rev. Raphael Allen, vice president of programs at Concerned Black Clergy. "It's all about isolationism and greed for the upper class. That's not promoting the legacy of Dr. King."
Many demonstrators asked how Mr. Bush, who pushed for war in Iraq, could champion Dr. King, who stood for nonviolent resistance.
"It's hypocritical," said Minister Mmoja Ajabu of Providence Missionary Baptist Church.
Pointing to Dr. King's tomb, a slab of white marble overlooking a reflecting pool, Mr. Ajabu added, "It's quite possible that Dr. King will get up out of his grave there and say, `What's going on here? You're killing so many people?' "
Civil rights leaders said the hastily planned presidential visit, to be followed by a $2,000-a-person fund-raiser in Atlanta, is interfering with birthday plans. They also said coupling a visit to honor Dr. King with a political fund-raiser was in poor taste.
"It's the epitome of insult," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, an organizer of the birthday celebrations. "He's really coming here for the fund-raiser. The King wreath was an afterthought."
Because of all the tight security, access to a historic black church near the memorial site will be limited. The church will be the site of a civil rights symposium, and initially, the Secret Service told organizers they would have to cut it short. But after discussions and threats by black leaders to lock themselves in the church, the Secret Service agreed to keep the church open.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has come to Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr. King, to lay a wreath at his grave. When President Clinton came in 1996, he received a standing ovation. But this presidential visit will be different. It seems to have lifted the lid on long-simmering anger many blacks feel toward Mr. Bush. Some Bush policies, including tax cuts mainly benefiting those with higher incomes and cutting back on welfare-type programs, have alienated black voters, analysts say.
"Certainly there's a great deal of hostility among African-Americans," said William Boone, a professor at Clark Atlanta University. "But this event is a very symbolic event in the black community." Dr. Boone added that in the minds of some, Mr. Bush is "trying to co-opt it for his political benefit."
Several civil rights leaders said they felt ambushed by the president's visit because they did not know about it until Saturday, when they read about it in the newspaper. The official holiday is Monday.
"I feel disrespected by the administration and the Secret Service," said the Rev. James Orange, a 61-year-old colleague of Dr. King.
Mr. Orange went on: "On Dr. King's birthday last year, his administration initiated plans to gut affirmative action. Here we are a year later, and the same person who tried to turn back the clock on me wants to use Dr. King's birthday because it's an election year."
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Bush had invited himself, but it is often the case that the White House calls a group and says the president would like to participate in an event.
"My understanding is that we contacted the King Center and specifically asked if it would in any way be disruptive if the president came to honor Dr. King and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony," Mr. McClellan said. "And the King Center indicated that it would not."
The King Center is the official guardian of Dr. King's legacy, and a spokesman at the center said the president's visit was welcome.
"We don't have any problems with this," said the spokesman, Robert Vickers. He called the security arrangements a "minor inconvenience."
Those on the streets may disagree. This morning, a stream of civil rights activists marched through Dr. King's old neighborhood, singing spirituals while Buddhist monks banged on drums.
Ghoshu Utsumi, a monk who regularly visits Dr. King's tomb, said: "Dr. King's message is against war and violence. This is the richest country in the world, and there are homeless people everywhere. It is sad that $87 billion is going to war. It is very, very sad."
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company