President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta on Tuesday and delivered remarks that included their strongest statements against Republican-led subversion of democracy and pushing for federal voting rights protections. The president and vice president gave their remarks at Atlanta University Center Consortium, a joint venture of several HBCUs including Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and Spelman College. The choice of location was symbolic, as the venue lies within the congressional district once represented by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whose name is on one of the voting rights protection bills being debated in Congress.
Even before the president spoke, however, some activists saw Biden’s speech as too little, too late. Several voting rights activists and advocacy organizations purposely chose not to attend Biden’s appearance. According to CNN, Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright told a group of reporters on Monday that “we don’t need even more photo ops.” Echoing calls that he and other activists have been making for months, Albright said, “We need action, and that action is in the form of the John Lewis Voting Rights (Advancement) Act as well as the Freedom to Vote Act, and we need that immediately.”
Despite these high-profile absences, Biden and Harris were joined by luminaries including the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and the presidents of the NAACP and the Urban League. Martin Luther King III also attended with his wife, Arndrea Waters King; the Kings described the choice to attend as a “difficult decision,” noting the dissatisfaction that many voting rights advocates have concerning the president. The King family had previously called for this year’s MLK holiday to be devoted to voting rights activism, a call that Biden mentioned in his speech.
Those in attendance or watching from elsewhere heard Biden and Harris use strong language to condemn Republican efforts to suppress and subvert votes while urging the Senate to pass voting rights protections. Vice President Harris spoke first, condemning laws passed in Georgia and other states that make voting more difficult, especially for Black and other minority communities. Harris warned that “there is a danger to becoming accustomed to these laws” a “danger of being complacent, complicit” as these laws are allowed to impact voting.
“The assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American in every community in every political party, and if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come” Harris declared. Quoting Dr. King, Harris said that “the battle is in our hands” and urged the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Harris also attacked the Senate filibuster rules that Republicans and conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have defended. “Senate Republicans have exploited arcane rules to block these bills,” Harris said, adding that when future generations ask about the fight for voting rights, “we cannot tell them that we let a Senate rule stand in the way of our most fundamental freedom.”
Biden spoke next, speaking at length on both the problem and the proposed solution. He called out Republicans for following the agenda of a “defeated former president” to attack democracy on Jan. 6 and to undermine it through the various laws that have been passed. Repeatedly linking the Jan. 6 insurrection and the passage of voter suppression laws, Biden argued that “the battle for the soul of America is not over.” He cataloged a list of the restrictive measures that have been passed, including restrictions on vote-by-mail and early voting drop boxes, as well as rules that create long voting lines and, in Georgia, make it illegal to provide food or water to those waiting to vote. “What in the hell — heck are we talking about?” Biden asked to laughter and applause from the audience. Additionally, pointing out laws that allow for partisan officials to intervene in vote-counting procedures.
“Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion,” the president summarized. “It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.”
Pivoting to potential solutions, Biden echoed Harris’ calls to pass the two voting rights bills and to alter or eliminate the Senate filibuster rules if necessary to do so. Speaking to criticism that the president has not put enough pressure on legislators like Senators Manchin and Sinema, Biden noted, “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months.” He then exclaimed, “I’m tired of being quiet!” while banging his hand on the podium for emphasis in the most impassioned moment of the speech.
Biden continued with his rhetorical push, again, evoking the legacy of John Lewis. “it isn’t enough just to praise his memory. We must translate eulogy into action.” Reminiscing on past bipartisan support for voting rights and calling out legislators of all parties to take a stand, he challenged his former Senate colleagues and how they will be remembered by history. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden asked. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Reaction to Biden’s remarks from voting rights advocates has been mixed. Stacey Abrams, voting rights champion and Democratic candidate for Governor of Georgia, who cited a scheduling conflict for her absence from the event, thanked Biden and Harris for their visit and words.
My statement: I thank @POTUS and @VP for returning to Georgia to continue their steadfast advocacy for passage of federal legislation to protect the freedom to vote. They made clear again today that they are committed to restoring the Senate to safeguard our democracy. #gapol🧵
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) January 12, 2022
Albright expressed frustration with Biden’s implications that there were moderate Republicans in the Senate that might join Democrats in supporting voting rights legislation. “That kind of false hope kind of frustrated me,” Albright said in an interview with Peacock TV’s Zerlina Maxwell.
Is Biden nostalgic for bipartisan Senates of old?
“He started talking about these 13 Republicans who voted on the last voting rights bill extension,” @cliff_notes says. “Those 13 senators no longer exist.”
“That kind of false hope kind of frustrated me.” pic.twitter.com/7ONW2BuJjV
— Zerlina on Peacock (@ZerlinaShow) January 12, 2022
Meanwhile, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill shared a clip of the “I’m tired of being quiet” portion of Biden’s speech and used it to further admonish Senators who stand in the way of filibuster reform and voting rights legislation. “Today’s call-out is long overdue,” Ifill wrote.
And no crocodile tears please from any Senator about being called out today. @POTUS Biden made clear that he has tried the “behind the scenes” quiet pressure approach for months. Today’s call-out is long overdue. https://t.co/0GCG9i86ts
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) January 11, 2022
Overall, activist reaction coalesced around the opinion that the Harris and Biden speeches must be followed by action to achieve tangible voting rights protections. “It’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job,” said the NAACP in a statement after the remarks.
NAACP on Biden’s speech:
“While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job. Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be THE priority.”
— Rachel Scott (@rachelvscott) January 11, 2022
It remains clear that voting rights organizations and activists will continue the campaign that they’ve been conducting for some time, fighting at the state and national level to roll back restrictions and implement voting protections. They hope that the president and vice president will serve as effective allies, and will continue to pressure the administration to follow up on these words with meaningful action to protect voting rights and democracy.