President Biden says voting rights ‘under assault’ in remarks honoring Bloody Sunday anniversary

“The right to vote [and] to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty,” said President Joe Biden in Selma, Alabama. “With it, anything's possible. Without that right, nothing is possible.”

President Joe Biden assailed voter suppression and called for economic justice for Black Americans during his remarks on Sunday, the day commemorating the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.

Standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where voting rights demonstrators were brutally beaten in 1965 by state troopers while protesting for equal access to the ballot, President Biden doubled down on his calls for Congress to pass two key federal voting rights bills that remain dormant on Capitol Hill – the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks to mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 5, 2023. – More than 600 civil rights demonstrators were beaten by white police officers as they tried to cross the bridge during a 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“The right to vote [and] to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty,” said President Biden. “With it, anything’s possible. Without that right, nothing is possible.”

He added, “This fundamental right remains under assault.”

Five months after activists, led by leaders like the late civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, marched from Selma to Montgomery, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. However, 58 years later, the landmark law remains weakened after rulings from the Supreme Court in recent years.

President Biden called out the “conservative” court that “gutted” the Voting Rights Act and lamented the “wave of states and dozens of anti-voting laws fueled by the big lie and the election deniers” after the 2020 election.

Acknowledging the political reality of a divided Congress where Republicans have repeatedly blocked passage of voting rights reform, Biden declared, “We must get the votes in Congress.”

He added, “I will not let a filibuster obstruct the sacred right to vote.”

Biden also connected the issue of voting rights to other issues impacting Black communities across the country, like access to affordable housing and the economy. He argued that his agenda was creating a thriving and inclusive economy prioritizing Black participation.

US President Joe Biden, joined by US Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL), Reverend Al Sharpton, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, and fellow activists cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 5, 2023, to mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The president also broadly condemned Republican-led bans of Black history in public classrooms, telling the crowd, “The truth matters, notwithstanding that the other team is trying to hide the truth.” 

He continued, “No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should learn everything – the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation – and everyone should know the truth of Selma.”

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, commended President Biden for using his speech to connect the dots between Bloody Sunday and today’s modern battle for voting rights protections, among other racial justice issues she and other civil rights leaders continue to advocate for.

Campbell said Biden opening his remarks to reference the recent censoring of Black history in schools was especially impactful given the historical backdrop of Bloody Sunday. “These are the things they don’t want the kids to know about,” she told theGrio. “If your history is removed from the consciousness, then your relevancy as a community doesn’t matter.”

The activist said the president appeared to be “laying out the key parts of his agenda for 2024.” She explained, “He talked about the progress of his administration, but also the unfinished business of his administration.”

Though Biden has not officially announced his reelection campaign, he and those close to him have repeatedly said he intends to run. Campbell said that the president’s agenda, whether passing voting rights or police reform through the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is impacted by the numbers he has on his side in Congress.

“He does have an agenda that has been impacted by who sits in Congress right now,” said Campbell.

In his remarks on the unfinished business of his administration, the president called for a full restoration of the Child Tax Credit — which studies show would greatly benefit Black and Latino households — continuing to lower the Black unemployment rate, lowering insulin costs for non-senior citizens, and expanding paid family medical leave.

Svante Myrick, president and CEO of People For the American Way – who called Biden a “tremendous friend and ally of the Black community” – told theGrio as the president and country reflect on the sacrifice of the Bloody Sunday foot soldiers, it’s important to remember that “if we didn’t pick up the torch and continue to fight, then we will have failed them.”

Bloody Sunday - African American Studies
In this March 7, 1965, file photo, state troopers swinging billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. Fast forward to 2022 and The College Board has launched a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary African American Studies Course. (Photo Credit: AP)

“What those brave Americans were fighting for, were bleeding for [and] were marching for was the right to have every vote counted. And unfortunately, many of the victories they won have since been rolled back,” said Myrick. “We have to recognize that they would be so disappointed in us if all we did was celebrate and memorialize.”

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who gave brief remarks before Biden’s speech, told theGrio before Sunday’s event that she hopes what people take away from this year’s commemoration is “that the fight for voting rights is still very much alive, and we have to fight and fight again to protect the progress of the past and advance it.”

She also noted that Selma, which endured devastation from a tornado in January, needs support to rebuild. “Selma is more than just a historical fight to be visited once a year,” she said, “but rather a living, breathing city that desperately needs resources to continue to protect and preserve this amazing history.”

Remembering the sacrifice of the marchers of Bloody Sunday, President Biden ended his remarks with a message of hope – and a call to action.

“Sunday is the sabbath, day of rest, but on that Sunday morning on March 7, 1965 … they chose different pews,” said Biden.

“We know where we have been and we know more importantly where we have to go – forward. Let’s keep marching. Let’s keep the faith. But most of all, let’s remember who we are.”

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