Joe Biden Embraces Dr. King's Dream As A Call To Action
It's truly a 'time of choosing.'
President Joe Biden visited Dr. Martin Luther King's spiritual home Sunday. He was the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday sermon from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King presided as pastor until his assassination in 1968.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, recently re-elected to a full six-year term, is the current pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and he welcomed Biden on what would have been Dr. King's 94th birthday.
“You’ve been around for 136 years," Biden said of the church. "I know I look like it, but I haven’t."
The self-deprecating reference to his age subtly reminds us that Biden and King are from tail ends of the same generation. When he says that King “was born in a nation where segregation was a tragic fact of life,” he’s also speaking of himself. Vice President Kamala Harris was born a few months after the Civil Rights Act passed and almost a year before passage of the Voting Rights Act. This is not, as Chief Justice John Roberts has suggested, ancient history.
Speaking from the same pulpit as Dr. King, Biden defied the easy political instinct to treat the civil right leader’s work as a fait accompli. No, Biden dared recognize the country as it truly exists. America is perpetually a nation at a crossroads, and Biden described this current moment as yet another “time of choosing.”
"Are we a people who choose democracy over autocracy? You couldn’t ask that question 15 years ago, right?" he said. "You would’ve thought democracy was settled – not for African Americans, but democracy as an institutional structure was settled. But it’s not. It's not."
We probably should have asked that question 15 years ago, even if that was the same year Americans would eventually elect the first Black president. The most consistent theme in US history is fierce white backlash to any racial progress. Barack Obama’s election was a moment of well-earned celebration, but it also sounded an alarm. We should have listened.
It’s good that Biden recognizes that American democracy is not a settled prospect. We must always fight to maintain it. As the great American hero Captain Steve Rogers said, “I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great, but because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could as easily be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people, we were no different from them!"
Biden said, "We have to choose a community over chaos. Are we the people … going to choose love over hate? These are the vital questions of our time, and the reason why I’m here as your president. I believe Dr. King’s life and legacy show us the way, and we should pay attention."
Peter Baker at the New York Times seemed to almost mock Biden's "more muted address" that came after he'd failed to pass significant voting rights legislation, which was entirely the fault of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who both cared more about the filibuster, whichDr. King denounced, than full Black enfranchisement.
And so a leader who arguably owes his presidency to the critical and timely support of Black voters in 2020 was left to offer only vague exhortations of hope and no concrete policy plans or legislative strategies.
However, Dr. King's life was hardly one of unsullied triumph. The last year of his life, when he'd vocally opposed the Vietnam War, was particularly difficult. He faced a divided civil rights movement, and local Black ministers in Chicago called him a failure who “created hate” during the previous summer's racial justice marches. But Dr. King's spirit never broke and his determination never wavered.
"He had every reason to believe, as others of the generation did, that history had already been written, that the division would be America’s destiny. But he rejected that outcome,” Biden said. “So often, when people hear about Dr. King, people think his ministry and the movement were most about the epic struggle for civil rights and voting rights. But we do well to remember that his mission was something even deeper. It was spiritual. It was moral.”
I don't consider Biden's words a cop out. Yes, he couldn't defeat the filibuster and pass voting rights, but Warnock is still a senator, despite the odds. That's both a moral and practical victory that Dr. King would've gladly celebrated. Tomorrow, we continue fighting.
You can watch the full Biden speech below.
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