President Bush told an African American congregation yesterday that racial prejudice continues to hold the nation back, even as some black leaders asserted that his policies were part of the problem.
The president and first lady Laura Bush marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover at a time when administration actions -- including a challenge to affirmative action at the University of Michigan and the nomination of a controversial judge -- are straining Bush's image as "a different kind of Republican."
"Even though progress has been made, there is more to do," Bush said. "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."
Bush, calling King "a great American," said, "The power of his words, the clarity of his vision, the courage of his leadership occurred because he put his faith in the Almighty." Bush did not mention affirmative action.
Although the president was greeted warmly, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, received even more thunderous applause. She blew kisses to the audience -- 650 in the sanctuary and an equal number in seven overflow rooms -- and wiped away tears as she sang hymns.
Bush's relations with African Americans are at risk of being clouded by resentment over remarks by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and by umbrage by some black leaders about Bush's renomination of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi to a federal appeals court. Pickering's commitment to civil rights was questioned by Democrats who rejected his nomination last year.
Outreach to the African American community is a party-wide project, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) spent yesterday morning in Atlanta with the King family, then spoke in New York City last night to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). "We must find the energy, and we must summon the will, not to succumb to the rhetoric of division," Frist said, calling for "a new optimism to heal those existing wounds of division."
The first lady also spoke to CORE, calling King "one of America's great sons -- a man who devoted his life to the nonviolent pursuit of universal civil rights."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), outlining a Democratic civil rights agenda, said in Detroit that Bush's stand in the Michigan case "called into question his commitment to expanding opportunity."
"All of us are left to draw one conclusion: His words about promoting educational opportunity were just that -- words," he said.
The president, greeted with hugs by people who said they disagreed with his politics, rocked his head to the Gospel music and joined the congregation in applauding a video montage of King's speeches. "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," Bush said in his four-minute speech.
Some audience members said they were dismayed by Bush's support for a Supreme Court challenge to race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan, a decision he announced last week on what would have been the 74th birthday of the assassinated civil rights leader. The announcement led Jesse L. Jackson to call Bush "the most anti-civil rights president in 50 years."
"I am just praying that God will touch his heart and that he would really reconsider and do what the Lord tells him to do," said Nikki Pearson, one of the ministers at the 6,000-member church, which meets in a cavernous warehouse once used by the former Hechinger home-improvement chain.
The pastor, the Rev. John K. Jenkins, said he was "very disappointed" by Bush's Michigan decision, but said the president's attendance at the church service suggests "his ultimate desire was to let people know that he does care."
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) also attended the service but said African Americans "don't want our leaders to come and give us lip service and at the same time lay out a brief that is against the interest of our people."
A senior administration official said the White House was not worried about the effect of recent events on Bush's image in the African American community.
"If the reception today is any indication, it's another reminder that most Americans don't judge the president through the same political lens that people involved in Washington politics do," the official said. "The president is increasing his support from the minority community because of the inclusive way he governs and because of the policy positions he's taken, including education reforms, the faith-based programs and his record of inclusion."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the church appearance was "understated, dignified and fitting to the occasion of a church service to remember the life of Dr. King."
"It was a very moving service," he said. "The president got a lot out of it, and enjoyed it very much."