In the middle of a swing through the South to raise money for his re-election campaign, President George W. Bush stopped at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave in Atlanta to pay tribute to the fallen icon. Though King’s widow and sister accompanied him, the predominantly black crowd did not meet Bush with warm greetings. While the visit was prompted by the national holiday on Monday, protesters at the gravesite couldn’t help but speculate about the motivation for the stop.
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the MLK March Committee, a civil rights activists group that formerly worked directly with King, had planned a human rights immigration conference honoring King at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The group had been planning the ceremony at the church located across the street from King’s grave for months, and were apparently put out by the president’s self-invite and accommodation commands. “They told us that the Secret Service wanted us out of there by 2 p.m.,” Rev. James Orange told the Journal.
By inviting himself to their ceremony, Bush caused many of their planned events to be cancelled due to security apprehensions. “Had this not been an election year, [Bush] wouldn’t have come. He didn’t come last year… but being an election year it was time for him to show his face to the people and impose his will…” Orange told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!.
Robert Vickers, a spokesman for the King Center, the living memorial for King, told the Journal that he received a call from Bush saying he would be in Atlanta and wanted to lay a wreath on the grave. “Every President has laid a wreath, outside of Ronald Reagan,” said Vickers, “So it wasn’t a formal invitation by the King Center, just like none of the other ones are.”
Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), told the Journal that the visit should have had more thought put into it on the part of Bush’s planners. “He has a right to come, but there should have been some consideration on what’s going on locally.” Brooks told the Journal and went on to say. “That’s quite insulting. This is not the appropriate way to honor Dr. King.”
According to the Associated Press, the Atlanta police barricaded the area up to 150 yards surrounding the gravesite. Protesters were seen with drums and picket-signs, and accused the president’s presence of being nothing more than a “photo-op.”
Bush won less than 10 percent of the black vote in the 2000 election, and with the presence of close to 400 protesters at the president’s appearance in Atlanta, his chance to win black votes in 2004 looks dismal. While the visit might have had the intention of winning such voters over, it seems the visit was counterproductive. But at least he raked in $2.3 million in campaign funds while he was in town.