By Randall Mikkelsen
ATLANTA (Reuters) - In a sign of the difficulty President Bush faces as he tries to win black support for his reelection, several hundred protesters loudly booed him on Thursday as he laid a wreath at the grave of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
"Bush go home" and "peace not war" the predominantly black crowd of protesters shouted from behind a barrier of buses, as Bush paid tribute to King on the 75th anniversary of his birth.
Bush wants to improve his standing among black voters this reelection year, after winning less than 10 percent of the African-American vote in 2000.
The president was accompanied by King's widow Coretta Scott King, and sister, Christine King Farris. He placed the wreath, bowed his head for a few moments, and departed without speaking or facing the protesters as the boos from the crowd increased.
The protesters carried signs with slogans like "Money for jobs and housing, not war" and "It's not a photo-op George."
A White House spokesman defended Bush's visit to the grave of the assassinated civil rights icon.
"This is about paying tribute to someone who had a tremendously positive influence in shaping the world that we live in today ... it's a solemn moment, a nice way to honor Dr. King," spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
Bush was in Atlanta as part of a two-state swing during which he also raised $2.3 million in campaign funds, trumpeted a reelection endorsement from Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, and promoted government aid for religious charities.
King's birthday is commemorated by a national holiday on Monday, recognizing his non-violent leadership of the black civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Today, all Americans benefit from Dr. King's work and his legacy of courage, dignity, and moral clarity," Bush said in a written statement proclaiming the annual holiday.
Bush faces a stiff challenge in wooing black voters.
"Bush's policies contradict everything Dr. King stood for," said Ann Mauney, a member of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition.
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, criticized the grave visit as "yet another symbolic gesture that lacks any real substance."
"Every policy decision of the Bush Administration including the war in Iraq, healthcare, jobs, the economy, judicial nominations, housing, the environment, as well as secondary and higher education, has done nothing to strengthen Dr. King's dream," Cummings said.
Earlier on Thursday, Bush hailed King's legacy during a visit to the predominantly black Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church in New Orleans. "I'm really not worthy to stand here, when I think about the fact that ... this is the very place where Martin Luther King stood, as well, some 42 years ago."
He also promoted his program of government aid for religious charities, which is popular among some black clergy. He announced new rules that help "faith-based" charities compete for $3.7 billion in Justice Department funding.
Bush raised $1 million at a New Orleans campaign fundraiser, and $1.3 million in Atlanta.