Martin Luther King Jr.'s 75th birthday should have been an occasion for serious reflection on his life, his teachings, his legacy and his service.
Instead, in Atlanta, we were forced to deal with an insult: an uninvited, insincere visit by President Bush to lay a wreath at King's tomb.
The King Center quickly made it clear that it had not extended the invitation, and Bush's visit caused great consternation among King anniversary planners, who questioned the timing, motive and intent of this self-initiated presidential visit.
Many of us remembered that it was on King's birthday last year that this same president, on national television, launched his attack against affirmative action by directing his administration to join the legal case against the University of Michigan's admissions policy. To follow that action by laying a wreath on King's tomb this year represented the height of hypocrisy for many of us in the civil rights community. It was obviously nothing more than a photo opportunity designed to woo black voters to the Republican Party. Coming in an election year, it was a blatant attempt to use King's image for political gain.
And here's the most offensive part: After a brief "official business" visit to the grave site — read: taxpayers foot the bill — Bush rushed off to a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser that same evening, picking up a cool $1.3 million in Atlanta for his reelection campaign.
There's a reason African American voters overwhelmingly turn out for Democrats. King's philosophies could not be more different from Bush's. King, a man of peace, was one of the first to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. Bush, by contrast, has unilaterally and preemptively declared war upon another country, causing hundreds of American soldiers to lose their lives and costing the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars. You have to ask how that is consistent with the life and teachings of King.
Three million jobs have been lost since 2001, and 9 million Americans are out of work. How would King feel about this? The poverty gap has widened under this president. Tax cuts have benefited the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the poorest, and certainly King — who spent his final years decrying poverty in the United States — would not support such policies.
King dedicated his life to racial harmony; Bush's policies have caused an even greater divide between the races.
It is time for protest, and about 1,000 people did so at King's tomb Thursday. The greatest expression of our commitment to King's dream is to redress our government when we feel it to be wrong. This is what makes our nation strong.
If President Bush was serious about honoring King, his rhetoric would be reflected in his policies. King would be honored by an America that not only talks about "no child left behind" but works for smaller classes, provides adequate funding for education, higher salaries for teachers and a public education system that is not treated like an unwanted stepchild.
King would be thrilled by a health-care system that took care of all of its citizens and a livable wage for all working Americans. King would work for campaign finance reform that does not allow the rich to buy elections, and he would strive to ensure that every vote is counted. King would not risk the lives of soldiers and use war as a pretext to secure oil.
On this 75th birthday anniversary, the veil of deception and arrogance was uncovered, and hope was reborn through protest, dissent and redress of our government.
The dream lives on.
Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, is president of the African American Ministers in Action program of People for the American Way.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times