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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Todd J. Gillman

Biden honors Martin Luther King at Atlanta church with nods to 2024 and voting rights

ATLANTA — Joe Biden, in a Sunday sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, used the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic pulpit to build bridges with Black voters as he gears up for a reelection bid.

Alluding to his failure to deliver on a key campaign promise — to restore voting rights protections erased by the Supreme Court in 2013 — he recalled King’s “epic struggle for civil rights and voting rights.”

“I have two heroes: Bobby Kennedy. ... And no malarkey, Dr. King,” Biden told the congregation. “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a nonviolent warrior for justice. ... We come to contemplate his moral vision and commit ourselves to his path.”

Biden has been inching closer to launching his 2024 campaign, and a Sunday sermon at Ebenezer — the first by a sitting president — was a big showcase.

Black Democrats rescued his flailing 2020 nomination effort in the South Carolina primary, with prodding from Rep. James Clyburn. And they were critical in Georgia, Michigan and other tight battlegrounds that fall.

King’s mission, Biden said, was “to redeem the soul of America,” but it’s up to “we the people” to revive stalled voting rights legislation.

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist since 2005, invited Biden to speak — after keeping some distance during his hard-fought reelection bid.

“We celebrate the birthday of the greatest American prophet of the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Warnock told the congregation. “Presidents and ordinary people gather in the sanctuary in the presence of the Lord. And the presence of the Lord is here.”

There was no mention of the embarrassing revelations hanging over Biden of classified documents discovered in his garage and old office at the University of Pennsylvania.

Later in the service, Warnock ticked off some of Biden’s achievements: the Inflation Reduction Act, infrastructure investment, a cap on the cost of insulin.

“That, my friends, is God’s work, and Georgia had a little something to do with it,” he said.

Biden carried Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020.

Former President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who won reelection in November, to “find” him enough votes to reverse the outcome prompted an investigation of potential election interference by the Fulton County district attorney, an elected Democrat.

A special grand jury in Atlanta completed its work last week, with a hearing set for Jan. 24 on whether to release its findings. Charges are possible against Trump and others.

“Remember what Georgia did for Joe Biden,” said former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Now a senior presidential adviser, Bottoms added that “the president is very interested in connecting with people … and there’s no better place than to do that than at Ebenezer,” a cornerstone of the community.

She demurred when asked if the sermon marked a campaign launch of sorts.

“I don’t know that it’s the start of it, but it could be a great start of it,” she said.

Ebenezer was founded in 1886, and King preached there until his assassination in 1968. His sister and other family members were in the congregation Sunday.

Mixing politics and Gospel, Biden called this “a time of choosing” between “community and chaos,” and between “love or hate," and between his own political vision and party and that of Donald Trump and “insurrection.”

King’s mission, he said, was “to redeem the soul of America. ... As the Bible teaches us, we must be doers of the word. ... It’s a constant struggle between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty.”

Marking what would have been King’s 94th birthday, Biden used the MLK weekend platform to reiterate his commitment to voting rights legislation — though less explicitly than he’d done a year earlier in Atlanta, when prospects for overcoming a GOP blockade were less remote.

Warnock’s embrace was just as important in driving enthusiasm among a key bloc.

Warnock won a runoff last month against Herschel Walker, the former NFL star backed by Trump. But for the last two years, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, “Warnock took extraordinary steps to steer clear of President Joe Biden,” until he had the second term safely in hand.

The senator’s victory ensured a 51-seat majority for Democrats. For Biden’s first two years, he faced a 50-50 Senate in which Vice President Kamala Harris held the tie breaking vote.

“I’ve spoken before Parliament, kings and queens, leaders all over the world. I been doing this for a long time. This is intimidating,” Biden said. “I stand here humbled” to be the first sitting president to speak at Sunday service at “Dr. King’s cherished Ebenezer.”

Harris was with Biden in Atlanta a year ago, when some civil rights groups snubbed him to protest his failure to secure voting rights legislation.

In a speech then at the Atlanta University Center, Biden called for ending the Senate filibuster to pave way for restoring federal oversight of elections that the Supreme Court ended in 2013.

Democrats from the Texas Legislature lobbied hard for both the legislation and the end to the filibuster through the summer of 2021, when they broke quorum and decamped to nation’s capital in order to delay legislation they warned would disenfranchise non-Whites.

Two Democratic senators refused to join a push to change Senate rules, though: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent.

Ending the filibuster would no longer be enough, since Republicans took control of the House this month and overwhelmingly oppose the Democrats’ voting rights measures.

White House aides concede that the loss of the House in the midterms has left Biden powerless.

“He’s asked for Congress to codify the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and also the additional voting rights act that’s pending before Congress,” the Freedom to Vote Act, said Bottoms, but he’s out of leverage.

“There’s only so much that he can do. ... We have done all that we can do from the executive branch. Now we need Congress to act,” she said.

In 2013, a 5-4 Supreme Court defanged the Civil Rights era Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling that poll taxes and literacy tests from decades ago could no longer be used to justify special federal scrutiny.

That freed Texas and eight other states with a history of discrimination from having to submit any election rules changes to the Justice Department for approval. Texas and other states quickly adopted voter ID laws and other changes that Republicans defend as necessary to ensure election integrity, and which Democrats view as techniques aimed at suppressing the votes of their Black and Hispanic supporters.

The House Democrats narrowly pushed through a bill named for Lewis, the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, to restore federal oversight.

Republicans called it a “power grab” that would trample states’ rights to oversee their own election rules.


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