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The BBC's Rob Watson in Washington
"Many in the black community still question Mr Bush's legitimacy"
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Monday, 15 January, 2001, 22:39 GMT
US marks Martin Luther King day
George W Bush at Kelso Elementary School
George W Bush: "Reaching out"
The outgoing and incoming presidents of the United States have been marking Martin Luther King Jr Day with public appearances - both claiming to take forward the legacy of the assassinated civil rights leader.

President-elect George W Bush attended an event at a largely black elementary school in Houston, where he pledged to carry on King's legacy by improving public education.

If I could leave America with one wish as I depart office, it would be that we become more the 'one America' that we know we ought to be

President Clinton
For his part, President Bill Clinton helped paint a pillar at a senior centre and later addressed a crowd at the University of the District of Columbia, where he called for "one America".

King's widow, Coretta Scott, opened the annual King Day ecumenical service calling on his followers to support affirmative action and oppose racial profiling and the death penalty.


Mrs King's words were echoed by Mr Clinton, who said minority groups in America still face problems.

Clinton paints a pillar at a senior centre in Washington
President Clinton called for racial unity
The outgoing president has sent a message to Congress with his recommendations for improving race relations in the US, listing areas in which he hopes the new administration will act, including criminal justice, social and economic progress and health care.

Mr Clinton's proposed reforms to the criminal justice system include:

  • banning racial profiling by law enforcement agencies
  • re-examining federal sentencing laws
  • giving defendants facing a possible death penalty - a disproportionate number of whom are black - greater access to DNA testing.

His comments may put pressure on Mr Bush, not least because they come shortly before the Senate confirmation hearing of his choice for Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who has been strongly criticised for his record on civil rights.

President-elect Bush faces deep suspicion among the black community, which overwhelmingly favoured Al Gore in the November election.

A spokesman for Mr Bush said his visit to a largely black school was "an important part of reaching out".

Election issues

Mr Bush paid tribute to King, but he did not directly address the concerns many black Americans feel about his election.

Martin Luther King Jr in 1966
Monday's US holiday honours civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Mr Clinton, on the other hand, referred to the controversy surrounding the November vote, in which many black voters in the crucial state of Florida felt they had been disenfranchised.

He urged President-elect Bush to appoint a non-partisan commission on electoral reform to examine racial, ethnic and class disparities in voting.

Mr Clinton has also suggested giving convicted criminals the vote. Those with criminal records currently cannot vote in many states, a punishment that falls disproportionately on black people.

Private criticism

While civil rights leaders publicly welcomed Mr Clinton's message to Congress, many privately said it was too little, too late.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of the country's best-known civil rights leaders, said Mr Clinton could have done more as president himself, rather than simply leaving his successor a list of policy changes.

Mr Clinton has had a complicated relationship with blacks during his time as president.

Many black leaders say he understands the concerns of African-Americans more than any other US president in history.

But in practice, he has been reluctant to fight for changes that would benefit the African-American community, such as adjusting census population counts to compensate for undercounting of minorities.

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See also:

11 Jan 01 | Americas
Black votes in Florida investigated
30 Dec 00 | Americas
Black voters' challenge for Bush
15 Dec 00 | Americas
Bush's African-American challenge
07 Dec 00 | Americas
Blacks sue in Florida
03 Nov 00 | Americas
Race off the agenda
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