After declining invitations for five years in a row, President Bush delivered his first address Thursday to the annual NAACP convention.
The White House said Bush wanted to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to show his commitment to civil rights. It was the same day the Senate was poised to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“The president has had five years to prepare for this speech,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, past chairman of the Congressional Black Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday. “I hope that this time, he makes it worth the wait.”
Democrats have called on Bush to use his appearance to renew the Voting Rights Act. “He could sign it right here on this stage,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told the NAACP on Wednesday, eliciting cheers from the audience.
The House voted overwhelmingly last week to extend provisions of the landmark civil rights act that President Johnson signed after violence erupted in the South over voting rights for blacks. The Senate is expected to pass it on Thursday, although probably not before Bush’s midmorning appearance at the NAACP.
Every president for the past several decades has spoken to the Baltimore-based group. Until now, Bush, who received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, had been the exception. His appearance comes in a critical midterm election year, when Republicans fear losing control of Congress.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that while there are political differences, the NAACP’s new leader, Bruce Gordon, has good relations with Bush. Gordon has met with Bush three times in the year he’s headed the civil rights group. That compares to one meeting Bush had with Gordon’s predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, a former Democratic congressman.
“It is clear that in this nation, racism and discrimination are legally unacceptable, but there are also residues of the past that we have to address,” Snow said in previewing the speech. “We have to find ways to make sure that the road to opportunity is clear for one and all.”
Snow denied claims that this was Bush’s way of atoning for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and some black elected officials alleged that indifference to black suffering and racial injustice was to blame for the sluggish reaction to the disaster. In September 2005, Bush’s top advisers met with black leaders to discuss their concerns.
“I think the president wants to make his voice heard,” Snow said about Bush’s speech. “He has an important role to play not only in making the case for civil rights but, maybe more importantly, the case for unity.”
Cummings, D-Md., said as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Bush needs to explain what he plans to do to help the thousands of families in the Gulf Coast region who remain homeless and jobless.
He said the president also needs to address other issues of concern to blacks, including access to health care and the minimum wage, which has remained at $5.15 for nearly a decade.
“If the tax cuts are working, why then — at 9 percent — is the unemployment rate in the African American community nearly double the national rate?” Cummings asked.
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