By JEFFRY SCOTT, BILL MONTGOMERY, ERNIE SUGGS and CHARLES YOO
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writers
Hundreds of protesters greeted President Bush in Atlanta shortly before 4 p.m. as he placed a wreath on the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been the slain civil rights leader's 75th birthday.
The president walked slowly down Freedom Walk and crossed the bridge leading to the King crypt with King's wife, Coretta Scott King, on his left, and the civil right leader's sister, Christine King Farris, on his right.
Bush received the wreath from an Air Force soldier and walked over and placed it in front of the crypt and stood in silent prayer for about a minute.
In the background protesters could still be heard chanting, and their boos grew louder as the president stood before the crypt.
Bush returned to the presidential motorcade at about 4:05 after saying goodbye to the King family members. The motorcade headed down Auburn Avenue towards the Georgia Wold Congress Center where the president will attend a Bush-Cheney 2004 political fund-raiser this evening.
Just before Bush's appearance, Buddhists chanting, students beating African drums and others shouting "Bush go home" burst past barriers but were driven back by police who, in an attempt to corral the protesters, parked four MARTA buses between the protesters and the grave site.
One protester held a sign that read "Bush - Zionist, puppet and liar."
Police had said they planned to keep the protestors 500 feet away from Kings crypt but the protesters, teeming just across Auburn Avenue, were much closer and could see the president as he placed the wreath.
A park ranger on the scene earlier warned protesters if they did not keep off Auburn Avenue the president would not come, but Bush appeared right on schedule, at about 3:50 p.m.
Atlanta Police Sgt. Kevin Iosti said two people were arrested for stepping into Auburn Avenue and refusing to move.
Air Force One touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. at 3:23 p.m.
The president visited King's grave while on a campaign trip to Atlanta.
"It's all politics," said barber Seaborn Johnson, as he sliced an apple waiting for customers in the Auburn Avenue Barber Shop. "It's an election year, isn't it? Hell, I would come there too if I was running for office. But the Bush family always opposed everything Dr. King did, so he's just applying for votes, that's all he's doing."
"I would dismiss any notion of politics while paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King," said White House spokesman Taylor Gross, in a telephone call around 4:20 p.m.
"The president does have another event in Atlanta," Gross said of a campaign fund-raiser this evening at the Georgia World Congress Center, "but he is extremely honored by the opportunity to pay his respects to the legacy of Dr. King."
The spokesman said Bush's visit to King's grave was to honor the late civil right leader.
"The president spoke earlier today at a church in New Orleans where Dr. King spoke in 1961. It is important to this president to honor [King's] memory and he has a commitment to building on Dr. King's legacy of equal justice for all."
The president's visit has drawn criticism from King event organizers who say that it will disrupt tributes to the civil rights leader on what would have been his 75th birthday.
At an NAACP press conference this morning at the Atlanta chapter's headquarters, the group questioned the true motive for Bush's visit.
Bush contacted the King Center late last week to say he'd be in Atlanta today and wanted to pay his respects by placing a wreath at King's crypt.
"Did he come to raise funds for Republicans and stop by to lay a wreath as a secondary ploy or is he sincere about laying the wreath and the fund-raising secondary?" said Dr. R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP.
"With a spoken position against what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for, the Bush administration has stood against -- affirmative action [and refused] to meet with the national leadership of civil rights organizations, including the premier organization, the NAACP, which has been in existence since 1909."
A presidential visit requires tight security, which in this case threatened to force the cancellation of a long-planned tribute to King next door at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Members of the MLK March Committee, who worked with King and planned today's tribute at the church, had complained that Bush might end up ruining the event. They said the daylong tribute with a focus on human rights was supposed to go from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., but that Secret Service agents told them they'd have to empty the church early in the afternoon to allow a security sweep before Bush's 3:45 p.m. visit. But on Wednesday, a compromise was reached. The program can now take place while the president is at the King Center.
Efforts by Bush organizers to coordinate the president's visit so it won't disrupt local celebrations didn't seem to have soothed everybody's feelings.
"I think he takes us black people as a joke," said barber shop customer Willie Tom Franklin, 58. "I wouldn't say he shouldn't come, but he's a little late in coming to Auburn Avenue.
"It's a gesture of respect, him coming to King's grave, but it's not about helping us ... I think it's about feeding off the little people."
Ulysses Crawford, owner of Auburn Avenue Barber Shop, asked, "How long has Bush been in office, three years? And how often have you seen him here?"
Mary Langston, who said she has been homeless since her divorce few months ago, had more positive things to say.
"I'm just a homeless person, but I'm proud he's taking some of his busy time to honor Dr. King," Langston said.
Anthony Bozeman, a former fast food manager, said while at the barbershop that he supported the president's motives for visiting King's grave.
"I don't think it was strictly politics. I think it comes from his heart. Dr. King was a great man, and he showing respect for that," Bozeman said. He added that the invasion of Iraq was "a good job against a man who spent his life torturing and killing his own people."
Free your mind, and the rest will follow.