By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
President Bush paid honor to the life of Coretta Scott King from the pulpit of a Baptist church in suburban Atlanta yesterday, recalling that "as a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation."
It was the type of eloquent tribute that Americans have come to expect from their president when an iconic figure passes. But the presidential gesture took on added significance because it marks the latest step in the administration's effort to repair its frayed relations with many black civil rights and political leaders.
"President Bush was where he should have been," said Bruce S. Gordon, the new president of the NAACP. "Coretta Scott King is a very important figure in black American history and American history. I thought it was appropriate for the president to be there to honor her."
Bush all but ignored many black civil rights and political leaders during his first four years in office. Instead, he focused on building inroads to African American leaders through the pastors of black evangelical churches and business leaders who were not identified with the traditional civil rights agenda.
Bush became the first president since Herbert Hoover to serve a full term without addressing the NAACP, which many acknowledge as the nation's leading civil rights organization. At the same time, Bush's relations with the Congressional Black Caucus were frosty, contributing to a growing gulf between the administration and black voters.
While he often points out that his No Child Left Behind education law and housing policies have contributed to improved test scores among black students and record levels of black homeownership, those achievements did not seem to resonate with black Americans, according to polls and political experts. His connection with black America hit a nadir after Hurricane Katrina, when Bush's approval rating among blacks plummeted to 2 percent, according to one survey.
But in recent months, Bush has made an effort to forge relationships with leaders he once ignored. Gordon has met with Bush three times since September, and the White House has reached out to a long roster of black leaders, primarily to emphasize the president's resolve to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast region ravaged by Katrina.
"There was not a strong relationship in the first term, in part because of the policy agenda he set," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic consultant who was among 30 prominent black leaders to meet with Bush at the White House in December. "But then there was 2005, which you can sum up in one word: Katrina. After the storm, the White House struggled to find ways to reopen the dialogue and have a different conversation."
While Bush was greeted respectfully at the funeral, the tension between him and some black leaders also was evident. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, drew a standing ovation when he criticized the war in Iraq, saying, "There were no weapons of mass destruction over there."
"For war, billions more, but no more for the poor," Lowery added as Bush sat behind him on the speaker's platform.
Former president Jimmy Carter, who has been critical of Bush's warrantless eavesdropping program, pointed out that King and her husband, the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., were targets of a "secret government surveillance" at the height of the civil rights movement.
"The struggle for equality is not over," Carter said. "We only have to recall the color of the faces in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi -- those most devastated by Katrina -- to know there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."
Asked about the criticism, Gordon said: "There are issues between this administration and the African American community. There is no question about it, and that is not going to change in just a few months."