President Joe Biden is set to mark what would have been the 94th birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr. with a sermon Sunday at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church that aims to celebrate the civil rights leader's legacy while reviving the Biden administration's call for sweeping voting rights legislation.
Biden's failure to win passage of a measure that would have bolstered voting right protections, a central campaign pledge, is one of his biggest disappointments of his first two years in office. The task is even steeper now that Republicans control the House.
In advance of Biden's visit to the church where King once preached, White House officials said he was committed to advocating for meaningful voting rights action.
“The president will speak on a number of issues at the church, including how important it is that we have access to our democracy,” senior adviser Keisha Lance Bottoms said
Bottoms, who was Atlanta's mayor from 2018 to 2022, said “you can’t come to Atlanta and not acknowledge the role that the civil rights movement and Dr. King played in where we are in the history of our country.”
The Democrats’ voting rights bill, named after John Lewis, the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, included provisions that would have made Election Day a national holiday, ensured access to early voting and mail-in ballots and enabled the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.
The legislation collapsed last year when two senators — Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat then and now an independent — refused to join Democratic colleagues in changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster. Sinema last month announced that she was changing her party affiliation, but she continues to caucus with Democrats.
Biden was invited to Ebenezer, where King served as co-pastor from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1968, by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor. Warnock, like many battleground state Democrats who won reelection in 2022, kept his distance during the campaign from Biden as the the president's approval rating lagged and the inflation rate climbed.
But with Biden beginning to turn his attention toward an expected 2024 reelection effort, Georgia is going to get plenty of his attention.
In 2020, Biden managed to win Georgia as well as closely contested Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Black votes made up a disproportionate of the Democratic electorate. Turning out Black voters in those states will be essential to Biden's 2024 hopes.
The White House has tried to promote Biden's agenda in minority communities. The White House has cited efforts to encourage states to take equity into account for public works projects as they spend money from the administration's $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The administration also has acted to end sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, scrapping a policy widely seen as racist.
The administration also highlights Biden's work to diversify the federal judiciary, including his appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the confirmation of 11 Black women judges to federal appeals courts — more than those installed to those powerful courts under all previous presidents combined.
The visit to Ebenezer also comes at a delicate moment for Biden after Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate how the president handled classified documents after leaving the vice presidency in 2017. The White House on Saturday revealed that additional classified records were found at Biden's home near Wilmington, Delaware.
In Atlanta, Biden will the first sitting president ever to speak at a Sunday service at Ebenezer, Bottoms said.
King, who was assassinated in 1968 after he fueled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, would have celebrated his 94th birthday on Sunday. Members of King's family are expected to be in attendance for Biden's visit.
The president plans to be in Washington on Monday to speak at the National Action Network’s annual breakfast on the King holiday.