President Bush's promises to fight discrimination did not win over an audience of black college graduates who remember he vetoed civil rights legislation last year.
Many of the students at Hampton University did not want the president to give the graduation address, which was received Sunday at times with scattered applause or silence.In a wide ranging speech on his administration's domestic priorities, Bush referred to his housing program that includes allowing tenants to buy public housing.
"We want to free people now trapped by self doubt and despair," he said. "We must free people who have been held back by the barriers of discrimination."
"This administration will fight discrimination vigorously because a kinder gentler nation must not be gentle or kind to those who practice prejudice."
The comment was greeted by a smattering of applause and a couple of jeers.
When he finished, several rows of graduates sat stonily and refused to applaud, while about two dozen raised their fists in the traditional black power salute.
Bush last year rejected the civil rights bill, over objections of many advisers and after a vigorous debate within his administration, and sided with business interests who complained they would have to impose quotas on hiring women and minorities in order to meet the bill's standards.
The Hampton protesters "realize how the veto of that bill affects their ability to get a job, and keep a job," said Asa R. Gordon, a 1963 Hampton graduate who distributed literature about the protest.
Bush was uncharacteristically staying at the presidential retreat in the Maryland countryside instead of returning to the White House. The overnight sojurn at Camp David came after doctors told him to slow down due to his Graves disease.
Bush told reporters he might even go for a jog Monday at Camp David, his first since he suffered the irregular heartbeat May 4 while jogging there.
At Hampton, a historically black college with some 5,000 students, Bush received an honorary doctor of laws degree.
About 1,200 of the students signed a petition against Bush speaking there, said Benjamin Curtis McGainey, a student affairs official.
But university President William R. Harvey extolled Bush's civil rights record, from founding the Yale chapter of the United Negro College Fund to boosting federal aid to the nation's more than 100 historically black campuses.
The audience applauded loudly when Carvel Lewis, the senior class president, said, "We shall always cherish and defend our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - as long as the country does the same for us."