In his keynote address on Jan. 16 at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast organized by civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, President Joe Biden courted black voters, discussed the stalled voting rights legislation, and referred to some House Republicans as “fiscally demented.”
Biden’s breakfast talk took place a day after he became the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday morning sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King ministered.
Born on Jan. 15, 1929, King was a minister and civil rights activist whose efforts helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was shot and killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39.
“I’ve spoken before parliaments, kings, queens, leaders of the world, but this is intimidating,” Biden said in his opening remarks.
Biden’s speeches in Atlanta and Washington were delivered as he contemplates whether to seek reelection in 2024 and after Attorney General Merrick Garland on Jan. 12 announced the appointment of special counsel to look into how the president handled classified materials when his tenure as vice president ended in 2017.
Some civil rights activists refused to attend a Biden speech honoring King in 2022, criticizing the president for “inaction” on issues that impact minorities.
Sharpton introduced Biden as someone who has “the back” of the black community.
In his remarks at the breakfast, Biden said in two years he has delivered in many areas for black Americans and expressed his intent to generate more support in Congress for stalled voting rights legislation.
“We’ve gotten a lot done together. So let’s keep it going,” Biden said.
Biden talked about increasing funding for historically black colleges and universities and “aggressively” combating discrimination in housing. He also reinforced his intent to ban assault weapons, pardon marijuana possession charges, protect abortion rights, and forgive student loan debt.
The president reiterated his message that minority communities face disparities and that taxes should be raised on affluent Americans.
“I think the economy—the way it should grow in America—is from the bottom up and the middle out,” Biden said. “That way poor folks have a shot, middle-class people do well, and the wealthy still do very well. They still do very well. But they start to pay their fair share.”
Part of Biden’s speech at the breakfast focused on unity between the parties. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate, and Republicans gained control of the House earlier this month.
Biden said he is prepared to work with Republicans if they want, but he added that he will not sign legislation on a national sales tax, reducing taxes on corporations, and strategic petroleum reserves.
“What in God’s name is that all about? That’s how they’re starting their new term,” Biden said. “If any of these bills happen to reach my desk, I will veto them—any of them.”
As he continued his address, Biden took issue with Republican priorities.
“They’re gonna talk about big-spending Democrats again. Guess what? I reduced the deficit last year $350 billion. This year, federal deficit is down $1 trillion-plus. That’s a fact,” Biden said. “And there’s gonna be hundreds of billions reduced over the next decade. But so what? These guys are the fiscally demented, I think. They don’t quite get it.”
At Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 15, Biden called the historic place of worship “America’s freedom church” and said that democracy is at a “perilous moment” and that King’s life and legacy “show us the way, and we should pay attention.”
“He said, ‘Where do we go from here?’” Biden said from the pulpit after he was introduced by Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is Ebenezer’s senior pastor. “Well, my message to this nation on this day is we go forward, we go together, when we choose democracy over autocracy, a beloved community over chaos, when we choose believers and the dreams, to be doers, to be unafraid, always keeping the faith.”
“The battle for the soul of the nation is perennial,” Biden added. “It’s a constant struggle between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice.
As he recalled King’s “epic struggle for civil rights and voting rights,” Biden lamented that the Freedom to Vote Act, which is designed to federalize elections, has not passed through Congress.
“I have two heroes: Bobby Kennedy. And, no malarkey, Dr. King,” Biden said. “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a nonviolent warrior for justice. We come to contemplate his moral vision and commit ourselves to his path.”
Near the end of Sunday’s service, Warnock asked Biden to walk to the front of the church and requested that congregants pray for the president as he mentioned a variety of Biden’s legislative victories, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure bill, and capping the cost of insulin.
“That, my friends, is God’s work,” Warnock said, noting that Biden “had a little something to do with it.”
King’s 95-year-old sister, Christine King Farris, was among the family members who attended Sunday’s service.
The White House has touted Biden’s efforts to help minorities with moves like encouraging states to consider equity for public works projects as money is spent from the Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and working to end what the administration deems as sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenses.
Biden’s initiative to diversify the federal judiciary, including the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, has been a widely discussed topic with the White House.
Eleven black women have been confirmed as federal appeals court judges, more than all previous presidents combined, the White House has noted.
At the Jan. 16 breakfast, and during his remarks at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Biden detailed the aforementioned accomplishments.
Democracies can backslide, Biden told the congregants at Ebenezer.
“Progress is never easy, but it’s always possible and things do get better in our march to a more perfect union,” Biden said.
“But at this inflection point, we know a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights, protecting our democracy. And I’m remembering our job is to redeem the soul of America.”