Many white Americans have dismissed black demonstrations against President Bush's wreath-laying trek to Martin Luther King's grave site in Atlanta as nonsense and an insult to the nation's leader.
Approximately 700 protesters converged on the site, and Bush was met with drumbeats, angry chants and placards with slogans such as "War is not the answer," "Peace, not war," "Bush go home," and "It's not a photo-op, George."
Let me say right off that the protests against Bush were as American as any that have come before or will come afterward.
To dismiss the substantive and symbolic meaning of the demonstrations is to do what Bush and other Republicans like him have always done: discount or ignore the general plight of African-Americans and the issues that are important to them. Or, even worse, consistently oppose legislation that blacks see as benefiting them.
To many blacks, the president does all of the above.
Protesters, therefore, consider him their enemy. Even the president's appointments of two blacks to the Cabinet and the promise of "compassionate conservatism" do not soften opinions. And remember, during the disputed 2000 election, only about 8 percent of blacks voted for Bush.
Many blacks believe that the president, even with the unshakable support of Southern white conservatives, is keeping an eye on the disgruntled black vote in Dixie. Thus, the Atlanta junket.
When African-American issues and emotions are involved, separating substance from symbol is a dicey endeavor. The near-sacred presence of King, especially during the celebrations of his birthday, is something that white leaders, especially the president of the United States, should be keenly aware of. Nothing about the King phenomenon should be taken for granted. Nothing about it should be treated cynically.
The protesters, along with millions of other African-Americans elsewhere, believe that Bush's visit was disrespectful, opportunistic and cynical, mainly because his behavior and policies are antithetical to the essence of King's life and work.
Shortly before his death, for example, King had begun speaking out against the war in Vietnam and military violence elsewhere abroad. He believed that war should be used as a last resort, that negotiation is one of the traits that separates the civilized from the uncivilized. In this light, polls suggest that fewer blacks than whites support the war in Iraq. And more blacks than whites believe that American lives are being wasted in a war that was unnecessary from the start.
King was a man of tolerance and peace. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. Coretta Scott King, the slain civil right leader's widow, accompanied Bush during the wreath ceremony. Although she vehemently opposed the Iraq war, Mrs. King did not comment on it for reporters following the president's visit.
On the domestic issues, anger over the visit is stronger. Sheriee Bowman, a spokeswoman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization that King co-founded and led until his murder, said, "We question the integrity of the timing of (Bush's) move because last year at this time, he stood . . . against affirmative action, the Michigan case, which is part of Dr. King's legacy."
Even though most whites may be opposed to affirmative action policies, most blacks are not. Many blacks see Bush - a university legacy and one who has dubious business acumen - as the supreme hypocrite on matters related to meritocracy.
Aside from the black church, where clergymen are eager to use federal dollars to run their social programs, black leaders believe that the president dismisses them. They do not enjoy the open door of Jewish, Hispanic and other groups. Black elected officials feel especially dissed.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, argues that few of Bush's policies, in any area, reflect the spirit of King's legacy and dream for America. "The president needs to be more embracing of elected African-American officials and the entire African-American community every day of the year, not just on January 15th," Cummings said.
The Black Caucus is still trying to get the president to meet with them to discuss issues that are important to African-Americans.
SCLC's Bowman and other black leaders say that Bush's visit to Atlanta showed how disconnected he is from the concerns of King and black America. "Dr. King had a philosophy and left a message," she said. "We urge the president to take a look at Dr. King's message and to create policies that mirror that message."
Bowman's observations explain part of why blacks protested Bush's Atlanta visit. During this election season, we can expect to see other such protests against Bush.