ATLANTA (AP) — When President Biden visited the South’s capital last year to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he issued a call to peaceful arms for voting rights, comparing opponents to segregationists and vowing to modify Senate rules to defeat them. “I will not yield,” he stated emphatically. “I will not flinch.”
Mr. Biden returned to Atlanta on Sunday, a year later, with nothing to show for it. He may not have flinched, but he also did not succeed. None of the far-reaching voting rights legislation he championed cleared the Democratic-controlled Congress last year, and the chances of it passing the newly elected Republican-controlled House appear slim.
As a result, a president who owes his presidency to the essential and timely support of Black voters in 2020 was left with just vague exhortations of optimism and no real policy proposals or legislative tactics. He persuaded an assembly at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church that their side in the battle will triumph someday.
“At this tipping point, we know there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights, and protecting our democracy, and I’m remembering that our job is to redeem the soul of America,” Mr. Biden told the grateful crowd, which included Dr. King’s sister, Christine King Farris, and one of his allies, Andrew Young.
“Look, I get accused of being an inveterate optimist,” the president added. “Progress is never easy. But redeeming the soul of the country is absolutely essential.”
Mr. Biden avoided the open partisanship of his speech last year, when he spoke at a university and compared Republicans to George Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood in a doorway rather than allow Black students to enter a white university; Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., public safety commissioner who used police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters; and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy who went to war to end slavery.
Republicans reacted angrily to the connection, claiming that the constraints they had placed in many states were designed to ensure election integrity and that they opposed Democratic-sponsored legislation because it constituted federal overreach. Even several Democrats were concerned last year that the president “went a little too far in his rhetoric,” as one senator described it. Mr. Biden justified the connection at the time, but chose not to repeat it or anything similar on Sunday.
Neither did he mention the elimination of the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, which was the centerpiece of last year’s speech — and was defeated just a week later when two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, joined Republicans in refusing to go along.
As a result, the law, which brought together diverse efforts, failed. The bill was intended to establish nationwide standards for ballot access in order to nullify new Republican state-level restrictions; to create new automatic voter registration programs; to declare Election Day a national holiday; and to restore elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act that had been stripped away by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Despite Mr. Biden’s inability to keep a promise made a year ago, several civil rights groups defended him. “Obviously, in the last year we were not successful,” said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, in an interview. “I sort of chafe at the idea that we were not successful because Joe Biden didn’t do something or the other. We were blocked.”
Even if policy success remains elusive, Mr. Morial expressed optimism that Mr. Biden will utilize his bully pulpit more frequently than only on Dr. King’s anniversary. “I’d like to see the president consistently speak about democracy and voting rights throughout the second half of his first term, not just episodically, because it is one of these fundamental values,” he added.
Aides acknowledged Mr. Biden had nothing he could do at this point without a shift on Capitol Hill. “The president has done and will continue to do all that he can do in his executive powers, but there’s only so much that he can do,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta who now serves as Mr. Biden’s senior advisor and joined him on Sunday. “We need Congress to act.”
The debate for voting rights may have lost some momentum following the November midterm elections. While Democrats feared that the Republicans would win in part due to voting suppression, Republicans fell short of predictions. They lost a Senate seat and gained significantly fewer House seats than projected, but enough to maintain a tight majority.
Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia and the senior pastor of Ebenezer, was one of the midterm election winners. Mr. Warnock retained his seat after a runoff election last month, despite new state voting restrictions widely decried by Democrats and civil rights advocates. On Sunday, he welcomed Mr. Biden to the church, where he congratulated him on his triumph.
Republicans claimed Mr. Warnock’s victory indicated that Democratic criticism was exaggerated. “Georgia’s election system has been challenged and scrutinized and criticized, and passed every test,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said after the runoff, noting strong turnout.
Mr. Warnock, on the other hand, stated in his victory address that evening that he won despite voter suppression. He said that stories of Georgia voters waiting for hours in large lines that extended around buildings were “most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist.”
According to preliminary data, the Black proportion of the electorate in the midterm elections plummeted to its lowest level since 2006, notably in states such as Georgia. Many variables, according to researchers, might explain why Black voter turnout has reverted to pre-Obama levels. A closer look at the figures revealed that the lower Black participation may not have influenced the outcome of any key contest.
However, the movement in a few states was remarkable. According to state data, the average Black turnout rate in Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina was 26 percent lower than among white voters, compared to 13 percent lower in the 2018 midterm elections. Georgia and Louisiana both enacted additional restrictions in advance of the 2022 elections, although North Carolina did not.
Nowhere has the issue been more prominent than in Georgia, where Dr. King headed the civil rights movement. The ancient church has long since grown into a vast group of structures and memorials, including the mausoleum containing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Mr. Biden joined Mr. Warnock and more than 1,000 parishioners in the sanctuary opposite the former church to evoke Dr. King’s spirit on what would have been his 94th birthday. While Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all spoke at Ebenezer, Mr. Biden was the first sitting president to deliver a sermon on a Sunday.
He stated that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were his idols as a young man, and he gave the sense, as he has in the past, that he was maybe more active in the civil rights struggle than other people’s recollections indicate. He described himself as “a 22-year-old kid in the east side in the civil rights movement,” although he did not claim to have been arrested, as he did last year. (Despite this, the Republican National Committee released a statement alleging, “Joe Biden once again lied about his life story.”)
In his sermon, President Obama praised Dr. King as a “nonviolent warrior for justice” who continues to inspire today’s youth nearly 60 years after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It’s still the task of our time to make that dream a reality, because it’s not there yet,” Mr. Biden said. “To make Dr. King’s vision tangible, to match the words of the preachers and the poets with our deeds. As the Bible teaches us, we must be doers of the word.”
The president, who will speak to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington on Monday, remembered Dr. King’s prediction of an ongoing fight. “‘Where do we go from here?’ he said.” That is a quotation. ‘Where do we go from here?'” Mr. Biden explained. “Well, my message to the nation on this day is: We go forward. We go together.”
He pointed to the Catholic rosary on his wrist that he said his son Beau wore the night he died of brain cancer in 2015. “There’s always hope,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to believe.”
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