THERE were plenty of believers when Bill Clinton, then the president-elect, told a mostly black college audience that he hoped to redeem Martin Luther King Jr.'s promise of equal opportunity.
Now, the believers within the civil rights leadership appear few and far between. Mr. Clinton moved into the White House nearly a year ago, and the activists contend that he promptly moved their cause to the back burner.
Clinton was returning today to the site of that pre-inaugural speech, Howard University, on the federal holiday marking Dr. King's birthday, and activists said they were hoping for more than rhetoric.
They say Clinton abandoned civil rights in trying to steer clear of ``liberal'' issues. His aim was to avoid alienating mostly white, suburban voters, they said.
Some were put off by Clinton's address in November, when he stood in the Memphis pulpit where King gave his last speech and said the late civil rights leader would be appalled to see today's rampant black-on-black violence.
``The freedom to die before you're a teenager is not the freedom Martin Luther King lived and died for,'' the president said. ``Where there are no families, where there is no order, where there is no hope ... who will be there to give structure, discipline, and love to these children? You must do that, and we must help you.''
Roger Wilkins, a longtime civil rights activist and professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Clinton failed to follow up on that speech with action.
``He doesn't have a civil rights policy right now. He's been president for a year,'' Professor Wilkins said. ``It's despicable for the president not to offer a jobs program when he offers all this gratuitous advice on our behavior. I did not like that speech at all.''
Clinton did try to push through a $17 billion economic-stimulus program keyed to job creation, but he was thwarted by Republican-led opposition in Congress. Activists said, nevertheless, that the president has failed to deliver on these promises: Appointment of a new assistant attorney general for civil rights; the naming of new heads of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, and the United States Commission on Civil Rights; a plan for addressing a Supreme Court ruling that threatens congressional districts drawn according to racial population to boost the chances for minority representation; a policy for reviving troubled inner cities; and a summit on homelessness.
``This, from a president who received 82 percent of the black vote, a vote that provided the margin of victory in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey,'' the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, urging in King's words the ``fierce urgency of now'' for the Clinton administration.