From the pulpit of the church once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Vice President Al Gore marked the commemoration of the slain civil rights leader’s birthday on Monday by announcing steps to strengthen the enforcement of civil rights laws.
The plan, a part of President Clinton’s proposed budget for next year, calls for the largest increase in civil rights enforcement funding in two decades, administration officials said. The president will propose a 16 percent increase, from $516 million to $602 million, in spending by the various civil rights enforcement agencies and offices.
Most of the increase would be for agencies charged with enforcing fair housing and employment laws and appears to follow through on promises Clinton has made in recent months.
In a half-hour speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church before a multiracial audience of several hundred people, Gore defended affirmative action and other programs to redress racial and ethnic discrimination. He denounced those who would abolish such programs to promote a “colorblind society.”
“These people who now call for the end of policies to promote equal opportunity say there’s been so much progress that no more such efforts are justified,” said Gore, a former divinity student at Vanderbilt University, speaking in the lilting and pitched cadences of a Southern preacher. “But they fail to recognize that the taproot of racism is almost 400 years long.”
During a brief interview on Air Force Two, Gore said he had been working on the speech for weeks, and his aides said he had received minimal input from speech writers.
The crowd loved it, giving Gore a several-minute ovation. Many waved and shouted, “We love you.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a King confidant and a hero of the civil rights movement, pronounced Gore’s speech “a great statement, a profound statement. I think the vice president showed he has a heart and a soul.”
Lewis also praised the announcement that the administration would increase spending on civil rights enforcement. Even though Clinton remains very popular among African Americans, some civil rights activists have accused the president of failing to pay enough attention to the interests of minorities in recent years.
Gore’s announcement marked the third time this month that the administration has proposed expansions of social services that appeal primarily to the left flank of the Democratic Party, which has grown disenchanted with the president’s shift to the center.
Clinton, who will deliver his State of the Union address Jan. 27, also has laid out proposals to expand Medicare and child-care programs.
The centerpiece of the proposal Gore announced Monday is an increase in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s budget. Critics long have argued that agency’s huge backlog of cases has made it largely ineffectual.
According to details released by Gore aides, Clinton will propose a $37 million, or 15 percent, increase in the commission’s budget.
Much of that money would be used to expand a mediation program to settle discrimination complaints brought by workers against employers. The agency would increase the number of new cases handled through mediation - rather than investigation or litigation - by 20 percent next year.
The administration predicted it would be able to reduce the average time it takes to resolve complaints from 9.4 months to six months and reduce the backlog of cases from 68,000 to 28,000 by 2000.
The president also will propose a $22 million increase for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand a program to investigate housing discrimination.
HUD would expand its use of “paired testing,” in which couples of different races, but otherwise identical backgrounds, approach landlords or real estate agents for housing.
Gore, who did not give details in his speech, received rousing applause when he announced that “President Clinton and I are proposing, as a part of his initiative on race, the largest single increase in the enforcement of our civil rights laws in two decades. Through reforms and through heightened commitment to enforcement, we will seek to prevent discrimination before it occurs and punish those who do discriminate in employment, in education, in housing, in health care, in access for those with disabilities.”
Clinton is popular among African Americans. Year after year, polling by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, shows him among the most admired Americans, regardless of race. Some in the audience Monday saw Gore’s speech as an attempt to build a similar reputation for the vice president.
Ebenezer church member Oliver Huff told reporters walking out of the church: “What do I think? I think he’s putting himself in a position to benefit from Clinton’s popularity in the black community. I liked what he had to say, but Clinton has a way of speaking to people that Gore really doesn’t have.”
Gore was flanked by Coretta Scott King and Dexter King, the widow and one of the sons of the slain civil rights leader. Also sharing the stage or in the audience were Georgia Sens. Paul Coverdell and Max Cleland, Gov. Zell Miller, Atlanta Mayor William Campbell, Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney and John Hope Franklin, who heads the president’s race commission.