A July 2 article on President Bush's observance of the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act incorrectly said that the armed forces argued in favor of the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy while it was before the Supreme Court. Retired military officers filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. (Published 7/3/04)

President Bush observed the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act yesterday, standing in the East Room of the White House, where the law was signed, and proclaiming that "America is a better place" because of its enactment but "the work of equality is not done because the evil of bigotry is not finally defeated."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that July 2, made it illegal to deny any American the right to vote; to segregate buses, schools, parks or other public places; and to refuse service to a patron based on skin color. The law essentially paved the road toward equal rights for minorities and women.

"All discrimination did not end that day, but from that day forward, America has been a better and fairer country," the president said. On display outside the room was the pen that Johnson used to sign the legislation into law.

Since the measure's enactment, the lives of black Americans have improved significantly. The poverty rate among them, then more than 41 percent, has fallen to 23 percent. Only 26 percent of black people had high school diplomas before the act became law. Now, 80 percent do.

There were fewer than 1,500 black elected officials in 1964. Today there are more than 9,000, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African American think tank in Washington.

Bush praised Johnson for the mettle he showed in signing the measure despite opposition from southern senators. And he praised civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for braving fire hoses, attack dogs and police with billy clubs to make their case for equal treatment.

The speech made civil rights leaders in the audience smile and may have helped the Republican National Committee's fledgling efforts to win more than the 10 percent of the African American vote the GOP has historically received in presidential elections.

But black historians, policy analysts and politicians said that Bush's actions against certain civil rights initiatives have spoken louder than his words, and that those actions will hurt him in November. His administration called the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy a quota system in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the Supreme Court, even as the armed forces and businesses argued for it.

Also, the president laid a wreath at King's tomb in Atlanta and then nominated U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, even though Pickering had reduced the sentence of a man convicted in a cross-burning case.

"I thought that was the most insensitive pairing of events," said William Spriggs, director of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality. "It seems extremely difficult to explain how someone could honor Dr. King and turn around and . . . appoint a judge who was unperturbed by the cross-burning case that he handled."

On the other hand, said Bush's supporters, the president has approved more funding for treating AIDS in Africa than any president before him, funded programs that helped more minorities buy homes, and helped historically black colleges and universities remain solvent.

"This message is resonating very well in these communities," said Tara Wall, press secretary for outreach at the Republican National Committee. "We're measuring it by the response we're getting during our tours, during our visits. We're saying this message needs to get out."

But for decades, black voters have cast 9 out of 10 ballots for Democrats in presidential elections. Deborah Burstion-Donbraye, an outreach coordinator and consultant for the Republican Party in Ohio, is working to reverse that trend.

"We're making sure that the Republican message is presented to people," said Burstion-Donbraye, an African American who is married to a Nigerian American.

That strategy is a good first step, said Alvin Williams, president of Black America's PAC, a conservative-leaning group, but he added that it is unlikely to help Republicans win a significant number of black votes in the coming election.

"I wouldn't be too optimistic, since November is just around the corner," he said. "The Republican Party needs a long-term strategy in relating to African Americans. It can't be predicated on every two and four years, when there's an election cycle."

"America is a better place" because of the Civil Rights Act, President Bush said.