Biden marks MLK Day at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: ‘Progress is never easy’

President Joe Biden's visit marked the first time in history that a sitting U.S. president delivered an address during a Sunday service at the historic Atlanta church.

President Joe Biden honored Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the civil rights leader’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, urging Americans to remember King’s fight for justice and racial equality. 

Biden’s visit marked the first time in history that a sitting U.S. president delivered an address during a Sunday service at Ebenezer, where King served as co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The president was personally invited by Ebenezer’s current senior pastor, Senator Raphael Warnock.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: YouTube/Ebenezer Baptist Church)

“Who other than Martin Luther King can get the president of the United States [to Ebenezer]?,” said Warnock, who also welcomed his fellow Georgia U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff to the church.

Biden, a devout Catholic, admitted to the mostly African-American audience at Ebenezer, “I’ve spoken before Parliament, kings and queens, leaders all over the world. I have been doing this for a long time, [but] this is intimidating.” As the crowd laughed at the notion, he added, “I stand here humbled.” 

The president delivered a 25-minute sermon with a mix of religious and political messages centered on democracy, justice, and love for mankind. Biden praised King for his work toward equality and for changing the “Soul of America” – a play on Biden’s 2020 presidential slogan.

“The soul of America is embodied in a sacred proposition that we’re all created equal to the image of God. That was the sacred proposition for which Dr. King gave his life,” said the president. “A sacred proposition rooted in Scripture and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. A sacred proposition he invoked on that day in 1963 when he told my generation about his dream in which we’re all entitled to be treated with my father’s favorite words: dignity and respect.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

While most of his message was hopeful in nature, President Biden acknowledged “there’s a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights and protecting our democracy.”

Biden last visited Atlanta in January 2021 when he and other Democrats led a push to pass federal voting rights reform to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has become weakened by rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. MLK, through his activism and lobbying at the White House, was instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act passed into law.

President Biden delivered a speech on the HBCU campuses of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University last year, urging Congress to pass the John Lewis Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act. However, Republicans ultimately blocked the bills in the United States Senate. 

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a drive-in rally for U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock at Pullman Yard on December 15, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Biden’s stop in Georgia comes less than a month before the January 5 runoff election for Ossoff and Warnock as they try to unseat Republican incumbents Sen. David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Progress is never easy,” Biden admitted on Sunday. 

While the president did not make any direct commitments to renew his push to pass voting rights reform on the federal level during Sunday’s remarks, Democrats in the new 118th Congress have already signaled it will be a priority for the party. But the chance of such legislation being sent to Biden’s desk is unlikely as Republicans hold a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next two years.

On Friday, Biden’s senior advisor and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Keisha Lance Bottoms, told reporters, “the president has been very clear that voting, the right to vote, the access to vote is a core component of our democracy, and he’s going to continue to push for that.”

President Biden’s visit back to Atlanta and to Ebenezer Baptist were significant for a number of reasons. During the 2020 presidential election, thanks to mostly Black and brown voters in the Atlanta metro area, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Georgia in nearly 30 years. The city is also the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and the historic church is where the funerals of King and the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis were held.

“It’s a sacred place,” Svante Myrick, president and CEO of the advocacy group People For the American Way, told theGrio. “If there is a sacred American place, it’s Ebenezer Baptist. Dr. King, though he would still be fighting for equality and he would be fighting against injustice if he were alive today, I know his heart would soar to see a sitting American president visiting a sitting United States senator who was the pastor of Ebenezer.”

Myrick added, “I believe it would give him fuel as motivation to continue the fight and it should do the same for all of us.”

Biden will continue his commemoration of the MLK federal holiday in Washington on Monday. The president will deliver the keynote address at Al Sharpton’s annual MLK Breakfast hosted by his organization, the National Action Network. Lance Bottoms said many civil rights leaders will be in attendance and will “have an opportunity to connect with the president.”

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: Former Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by Rev. Al Sharpton during the National Action Network Breakfast on January 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. Martin Luther King III was among the attendees. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

The former Atlanta mayor declined to say whether the president would be discussing any specific policy measures with civil rights leaders, such as voting rights or police reform. However, she noted that “this is not a one-time engagement.” 

“Rev. Al and some of the other civil rights leaders, I believe from eight other organizations, were in the White House a few months ago, sitting down with the president [and] sharing their concerns,” said Lance Bottoms. 

“We’re hearing in real-time, what our challenges are … [and] we are doing what we can do and we’ll continue to do more as we can to make sure that the needs of our communities are met.”

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