Baltimore — George W. Bush, facing a skeptical audience, told the NAACP on Monday he recognizes the Republican Party has not always been seen as friendly toward blacks. He promised to work to improve relations, saying, "Our nation is harmed when we let our differences divide us."
"Some in my party have avoided the NAACP and ... some in the NAACP have avoided my party," Bush said, pausing between the two statements, drawing laughter and applause. "Before we get to the future, we must acknowledge our past."
There was a disruption just before the Texas governor was introduced when several protesters shouting "Remember Gary Graham" held up signs picturing the Texas death row inmate who was executed last month.
The NAACP has called the execution a "gross travesty of justice," but Bush said after his speech that organization officials told him the protesters were "outsiders."
Bush's appearance before the NAACP national convention was the first for a GOP presidential candidate since his father spoke to the convention during his 1988 campaign. In 1996 Bob Dole caused a flap when he declined an invitation.
"I have been looking forward to this," Bush told audience members, many of whom stood and clapped as he took the podium. In a 20-minute speech before approximately 3,500, Bush said that "racism, despite all our progress, still exists."
"For my party, there's no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln," said Bush.
"I'm not castigating, I'm talking reality," Bush said. "That's my job, to say here's where we have fallen short and here's where we will improve."
Bush did not mention the controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina. During Monday's meeting, the NAACP criticized lawmakers who supported a compromise for moving the flag from the Capitol dome to a flagpole on Statehouse grounds.
Bush has said the issue should be left up to South Carolinians, but some blacks believed he should have spoken out against displaying the flag.
Bush didn't announce any specific initiative to fight racism in America. Instead he outlined his education, health care and housing proposals and a plan to lift restrictions on religious organizations so they can play a bigger role in helping poor Americans.
"Government can spend money, but it cannot put hope in someone's heart or a sense of purpose in their lives," said Bush. "That is done ... by churches, synagogues, mosques and charities."
Bush said minority students in Texas are improving at "one of the fastest rates in the country. Black fourth-graders in Texas have better math skills than any other state."
He also spoke of a home ownership proposal -- which drew applause -- to let low-income families use a year's worth of federal subsidized rental payments to make a down payment.
"I'm not calling for government to step back from its responsibilities but to share them," he said.
With polls showing Bush trailing Democratic rival Al Gore among minority voters, he has been courting blacks and Hispanics over the past two weeks. He appeared before the Congress of Racial Equality, an organization of conservative blacks, and two Hispanic groups, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza.