Bush To NAACP: 'Racism Still Lingers'

President Bush delivers remarks, Thursday, July 20, 2006, at the NAACP Annual Convention in Washington. It was Bush's first time speaking to the group since taking office, after rejecting the civil rights group's invitations for five straight years. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
President Bush, addressing the NAACP after skipping its convention for five years, said Thursday he knows racism exists in America and that many black voters distrust his Republican Party.

Mr. Bush lamented the GOP's rocky relations with blacks. He pledged to improve that relationship and work with the NAACP's new leader to achieve common goals.

"I understand that racism still lingers in America," President Bush told more than 2,200 people at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual gathering. "It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party."

That line generated boisterous applause and cheers from the audience, which generally gave the president a polite, reserved reception.

"I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community," Mr. Bush said. "For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."

A heckler, apparently protesting the Iraq war, briefly interrupted Mr. Bush's speech, CBS News reports.

Mr. Bush continued with his remarks as NAACP chairman Julian Bond rose to try to quiet the situation. Mr. Bush told Bond, "Don't worry about it. Don't worry about it."

Black support for Republicans in elections has hovered around 10 percent for more than a decade. In 2004, Mr. Bush drew 11 percent of the black vote against Democrat John Kerry.

Most of the president's talk generated a smattering of applause. But many in the convention center stood and clapped when he urged the Senate to renew a landmark civil rights law passed in the 1960s to end racist voting practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, in Southern states.

The Senate passed the bill Thursday and sent it to the president.

Mr. Bush did get a standing ovation, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports. Most everyone was on their feet, but former NAACP board member Gail Anderson Holness stayed in her seat.

"We are always on someone else's agenda when they want to have a conversation with us," she said. "When we want to talk to them, they don't want to talk to us."

For five years in a row, Mr. Bush had declined invitations to address the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the nation. This year, he said yes, knowing that he would be facing a tough crowd.

According to AP-Ipsos polling conducted in June and July, 86 percent of blacks disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job, compared with 56 percent of whites who disapprove.

While the audience was cordial, some NAACP members were disappointed that the president did not mention the war in Iraq. During Mr. Bush's speech, two NAACP members from Louisiana held their hands in the air to display the two-fingered, "V" peace symbol.