Despite decades of progress on racial equality and justice, “there is more to do,” President Bush said Monday as he celebrated Martin Luther King Day.
In brief remarks to a large African American congregation here, Bush hailed the slain civil rights leader for “the power of his words, the clarity of his vision [and] the courage of his leadership.”
The president did not mention his own controversial decision last week to oppose admissions practices at the University of Michigan that favor minorities. The case is one of the most important affirmative-action disputes to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in a generation.
Rather, Bush spoke in general about the plight of the disadvantaged.
“There are still people in our society who hurt. There is still prejudice holding people back. There is still a school system that doesn’t elevate every child so they can learn,” he said. “There is still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King, to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land.”
Before his five-minute speech to an overflow crowd at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Bush participated in a closed-door discussion with a small group drawn from the congregation. He used the opportunity to tout his initiative to channel more government funds to social services programs operated by religious organizations.
“It’s fitting we’re here in a church that has got ministries aimed at healing those who hurt and fighting addiction and promoting love and families,” Bush told the full congregation shortly after the 45-minute session. “It is fitting we meet here in a church because, in this society, we must understand government can help, government can write checks -- but it cannot put hope in people’s hearts or a sense of purpose in people’s lives.”
After Bush departed the service -- which was also attended by his wife, Laura, and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice -- congregation members expressed approval for his reaching out to them.
“I’m a Democrat, but I think this was good for our community,” said Kalvin Conaway as he left the church with his daughter, Taylor, 5, who earlier sang in the children’s choir.
“It lets us see a different side of him that we usually don’t see,” Conaway said. “He did connect with us a little bit.”
Vilinda McCann said she was “glad he was here, even though everyone may not agree with what he’s for.”
Garreth Douglas agreed that not all church members share Bush’s views, whether on foreign policy or domestic priorities. “But we want to receive and react in a Christian manner,” he said. “Politics can come later. We believe that God can change the heart of the king.”
In an announcement timed for the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, the White House late Sunday disclosed that Bush will seek a 5% increase in funding in the next fiscal year for grants to historically black colleges, universities and graduate programs. The increase, if approved by Congress, would total $277 million. The funds are designed to help 117 institutions across the country strengthen their infrastructure, improve community outreach and provide scholarship aid. About $94 million in assistance also would be provided to institutions that have a Latino enrollment greater than 25%.
Among the Martin Luther King Jr. observances in Washington on Monday was a service at the National Cathedral attended by antiwar demonstrators, who stayed on after a weekend of protests against a possible war against Iraq.
The service, which was to be followed by a candlelight procession to the White House, focused on the link between war and poverty.
King delivered a sermon at the National Cathedral four days before his 1968 slaying in Memphis.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the leading voice of the Democratic opposition, delivered a speech in Detroit in which he outlined his party’s civil rights agenda.
Among the priorities, he said, are supporting the University of Michigan’s admissions policies, prohibiting the law enforcement practice of racial profiling and passing tougher hate-crime legislation.
Mrs. Bush was in New York City on Monday night to attend the annual Congress of Racial Equality dinner, along with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Others scheduled to attend the dinner were civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and baseball star Hank Aaron.