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Bush Visit to Civil Rights Leader's Grave Stirs Controversy - 2004-01-15


President Bush paid tribute Thursday to the slain American civil rights leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. During a trip to the southern United States the president laid a wreath at his tomb and visited a church where Reverend King once preached.

Atlanta police estimate there were about a thousand protesters shouting slogans like Bush go home and peace not war. Two were arrested when they tried to move into the street near the crypt from a designated protest area a few hundred meters away.

The president's visit, on what would have been the civil rights leader's 75th birthday, was brief. Accompanied by members of the King family, Mr. Bush laid a memorial wreath by the tomb and bowed his head. He made no remarks.

But earlier, during a visit to a predominantly African-American church in New Orleans, Louisiana, the president talked about Martin Luther King's belief in the power of faith.

"That is what he knew," he said. "It is an important lesson for us to remember here in America, that God's word can humble the mighty, lift up the meek and can bring comfort and strength to all who yearn for justice and freedom."

President Bush spoke from the pulpit of the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church, where Reverend King once preached. He urged the audience to support his plan to enable religious institutions to get government money to help run social programs.

Later, the White House released the president's King Day Holiday proclamation. In it, Mr. Bush said the holiday which will be observed next Monday, honors an American who dedicated his life to the fundamental principles of freedom, opportunity, and equal justice for all.

But some African-American leaders say the president's visit to the King gravesite was not appropriate. Some cite differences with the Bush administration's domestic polices, while others point to his decision to invade Iraq.

Reverend King's widow, Coretta Scott King, has been a strong critic of the Iraq conflict. She did not comment in public on the presidential visit. A spokeswoman said only that the King family agreed to a request from the White House out of respect for the office of the presidency and Martin Luther King's legacy.