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Inside Politics

Bush's Atlanta visit marked by protests

Wreath-laying ceremony part of a two-city swing into South

Protesters await the arrival of President Bush near the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
Protesters await the arrival of President Bush near the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.

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Civil Rights
Martin Luther King Jr
George W. Bush
Coretta Scott King

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- About 400 protesters lined the street across from the King Center in Atlanta as President Bush laid a wreath at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to commemorate the 75th birthday of slain civil rights leader Thursday.

Carrying signs and chanting to rhythms pounded from conga drums, members of the crowd resisted efforts by police to move them to a designated protest area about 150 yards from the reflecting pool in front of the simple white marble crypt.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, walked with the president to her husband's tomb. After Bush laid the wreath, he stood, head bowed, for about 15 seconds.

Although King Center officials did not invite Bush to join their planned celebration, Mrs. King met briefly with the president.

Shortly before Bush's arrival, a line of city buses parked in front of the center, preventing Bush and the protesters from seeing each other, although the demonstrators' jeers and slogans were not muted.

Their signs indicated the protesters were drawn from a wide coalition. "War is not the Answer," "Promote Peace, Not Halliburton," "HUD Sponsors Racism," "Impeach the Liar" and "No Blood for Oil" were just a few of them.

Two people were taken into custody when they attempted to cross the street.

Bush later issued a statement marking next Monday as the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

"America has come far in realizing Dr. King's dream, but there is still work to be done," the statement said. "In remembering Dr. King's vision and life of service, we renew our commitment to guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans."

The wreath-laying ceremony was part of a two-city swing into the South by Bush that included a speech to a mostly black church and a fund-raiser at the D-Day Museum, both in New Orleans, Louisiana, and another fund-raiser later in Atlanta.

Among the civil rights leaders angered by Bush's appearance at the King Center was the Rev. Tim McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and a demonstration organizer.

"The thing that is most hypocritical is choosing the 75th anniversary of his birth -- the man who was the epitome of peace, perhaps the most noted African-American anti-war individual," McDonald said.

"To come on his birthday ... when this president unilaterally went to war, is still engaged in war, an illegal and unjust war."

McDonald said Bush has adversely affected minority communities through his policies on criminal justice, the elderly, Medicare, housing and unemployment.

"That is what we think Dr. King would be speaking out against," McDonald said. "For him [Bush] to try to overshadow that and photo-op and hijack our appreciation and admiration for Dr. King is just not going to be tolerated."

McDonald accused Bush, who won just 9 percent of the African-American vote in the 2000 election, of being motivated more by politics than by any admiration for King.

"They're trying to woo black votes to the Republican Party," McDonald said. "It's turning African-Americans off. Now everybody sees the arrogance and the hypocrisy of this administration. This is nothing personal. It's his policies -- in direct opposition to what Dr. King lived and died for."

Bush touts faith-based programs

Earlier in the day, Bush told congregants at the Union Bethel AME Church in New Orleans, where King once preached, "It's important for our country to honor his life and what he stood for. Dr. King understood that faith is power greater than all others."

Bush also announced he had issued an executive order opening $3.7 billion in Justice Department grants to bids from faith-based institutions.

"Government should not fear faith-based programs. We ought to welcome faith-based programs and we ought to fund faith-based programs," Bush said in an address at the church, which runs a day-care center and a program to feed the homeless on weekends.

"Many of the problems that are facing our society are problems of the heart. Addiction is the problem of the heart," Bush said in indicating why he believes government alone cannot solve some social problems.

Bush has been trying to persuade Congress to change the laws governing federal funding of religious-based programs since shortly after he took office in 2001.

But his opponents have held up such legislation, saying it would be tantamount to government support of specific religions.

"They balked," Bush said. "So I signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies not to discriminate against religious groups."

Since he made that move, most of his Cabinet departments have opened offices to solicit bidding from faith-based programs.

"The playing field is now level," Bush told the church members. "You've got a chance to bid along with other types of organizations ... without fear of discrimination."

Bush was introduced at the Atlanta fund-raising dinner by U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, and the White House later issued a fact sheet listing a number of Georgia Democrats who have endorsed Bush, including Miller.

Others on the list were former Attorney General Griffin Bell, former U.S. Sen. David Gambrell, former Rep. Doug Barnard and Virgil Williams, former chief of staff to Miller when he was governor. The statement said 12 Democratic and one independent state legislator also have endorsed Bush.

CNN's Brian Cabell, Michael Heard and Catherine Berger contributed to this story.

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