ATLANTA — President Joe Biden delivered the Sunday sermon at the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been the slain civil rights leader’s 94th birthday and implored a crowd of churchgoers to continue to pursue his vision.
“It’s still the task of our time to make that dream a reality because it’s not there yet. To make Dr. King’s vision tangible, to match the words of the preachers and the poets with our deeds,” Biden said.
“On this day of commemoration, service and action, let us hold up a mirror to America and ask ourselves: What kind of country do we want to be?” Biden said. “Will we honor Dr. King’s legacy by rising together — buttressed by each other’s successes, enriched by each other’s differences and made whole by each other’s compassion? I believe we can.”
Biden appeared at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, now the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. A who’s who of Georgia Democrats were on hand for the visit. Biden was greeted on the tarmac by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, now serving in the Biden administration, was there at the church as was former Ambassador Andrew Young and King’s sister, Christine King Farris.
Biden remarked on the array of luminaries before him as he began his speech.
“I’ve spoken before parliaments, kings, queens, leaders for a long time. But this is intimidating,” he said.
“The battle for the soul of this nation is perennial. It’s a constant struggle. It’s a constant struggle between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice, against those who traffic in racism, extremism and insurrection. A battle fought on battlefields and bridges, from courthouses and ballot boxes to pulpits and protests.
“But I don’t need to tell you that we’re not always at our best. We’re fallible, we fail and fall,” he continued. “But faith and history teach us that however dark the night, joy cometh in the morning.”
In introducing Biden, Warnock evoked both King and poet Langston Hughes, offering that “we are inspired by his life of service and how he has transformed his pain into power.”
“Joe Biden is no stranger to suffering and grief, but his faith has sustained him,” Warnock said.
Biden, a Catholic, reveled in the pageantry of the Black Baptist Church. He swayed as the massive choir sang hymns and gospel songs. He paused and smiled midway through his speech when someone from the congregation — in the great Black church tradition — told him to “preach.”
“This was such an authentic moment for the president,” said Bottoms, who now works in the White House as the senior adviser for public engagement. “You could tell that he really felt the spirit of the church because he has such great regard for Dr. King. Even where there is not an audience, he has told me many times about the influence that Dr. King had on his life.”
In his speech, brief enough to let church out on time, Biden cautioned the congregation that while progress is never easy, “it is always possible.
“Things do get better in our march toward a more perfect union,” he said. “But at this inflection point, we know there’s a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights, protecting our democracy. And I’m remembering that our job is to redeem the soul of America.”
While several presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have previously spoken at Ebenezer, Biden was the first president to ever deliver a Sunday sermon. It was made even more significant by being on King’s birthday.
Biden’s appearance at Ebenezer was a highlight of what has been a trying week for the president. On Saturday, the White House announced that five more pages containing classified information were found at his Delaware home on Thursday. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate the matter.
Before Biden arrived, Warnock spoke to ABC News “This Week” and said he supported the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to investigate.
“I’m glad to see the Justice Department doing its work, and we ought to let that work proceed,” Warnock said.
Talking about negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, Warnock warned, “The fact of the matter is, we can do deficit reduction, we can deal with our national debt, without playing chicken with the American economy.”
Warnock steered clear of Biden during his recent campaign against Republican Herschel Walker, worried that the president’s low approval ratings in Georgia could rub off on his reelection bid. But he has since said he would support Biden if he ran for a second term.
Biden won the presidency with strong support from Black voters and is expected to announce his reelection bid in the coming weeks.
As the service wrapped up, Warnock called on Biden to stand next to him. The senator then ticked off a list of his legislative accomplishments, including an infrastructure act and a bill to lower prescription drug prices.
“That, my friends, is God’s work,” he said, before leading the congregation — and Biden — in a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”