Atlanta: President Joe Biden is marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday 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 comprehensive voting rights legislation.
Biden’s failure to win a measure that would have strengthened voting-right protections, a central campaign pledge, has been one of the biggest disappointments of his first two years in office. The task is made even more difficult now that Republicans control the House. Before Biden went to the church where King once preached, White House officials said he was committed to advocating for the meaningful voting rights act.
“The president will speak on several 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 stop at Ebenezer 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 he left the vice presidency in 2017. The White House revealed on Saturday that additional classified records were found at Biden’s home near Wilmington, Delaware.
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 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 the 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.
In Atlanta, Biden will the first sitting president ever to speak at a Sunday service at Ebenezer, Bottoms said.
Warnock told ABC’s “This Week” that Biden will “sit in the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia’s greatest son, arguably the greatest American, who reminds us that we’re tied in a single garment of destiny, that this is not about Democrat and Republican, red, yellow, brown, black and white. We’re all in it together.”
The president plans to be in Washington on Monday to speak at the National Action Network’s annual breakfast on the King holiday.