President Joe Biden on Sunday praised the courage of civil rights activists and condemned efforts to restrict voting and attack the election process in a speech commemorating the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma.
In his 20-minute address delivered at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a law enforcement posse attacked civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965, Biden said he would continue to support efforts to defend voting access, and quoted the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who was beaten on the bridge that day.
“The children of God started a journey, not saying a word, walking, beaten, teargassed,” Biden said, quoting Lewis. “On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America.”
The speech came as federal efforts to restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – a direct product of Bloody Sunday – have stalled. The 2021 John Lewis Voting Rights Act, meant to strengthen the federal law, passed the U.S. House of Representatives later that year, but failed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Biden on Sunday vowed to continue to fight for the bill.
“I made it clear,” Biden said. “I will not let a filibuster obstruct the sacred right to vote.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of voter discrimination, like Alabama, to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing voting laws. Last year, the high court blocked a lower court decision that would have required Alabama to create at least two congressional districts where Black candidates had a chance of winning.
At other times, Biden’s address sounded more like a campaign speech. The president spoke about economic opportunity and medical access.
“The task before us is about justice, but it is also about jobs,” Biden said. “Financial stability, the ability to generate generational health. It is about hope, self-worth, it is about dignity. That is why we are building an economy … that grows from the bottom up and the middle out.”
He mentioned many administration-supported bills passed by Congress, including the American Rescue Plan Act, aimed at relieving economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic; the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, providing $1.2 trillion in investments in transportation, broadband and electrical infrastructure; and the $739 million Inflation Reduction Act, providing money for climate change action, pharmaceutical drug reform and deficit reduction. Republicans mostly opposed the measures.
Biden also referred to Eli Lilly’s recent announcement that it would cap the monthly cost of insulin at $35.
“I have been fighting this for the past 25 years, but guess what, we finally beat big pharma,” he said.
Biden also spoke of appointing federal judges to the bench, including Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bridge Crossing Jubilee is annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma
The Bridge Crossing Jubilee is an annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, held over several days in Selma, that concludes with participants marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The national outrage over Bloody Sunday led to the Selma-to-Montgomery march later that month. It became a major catalyst for the Voting Rights Act, which led to free elections throughout the South for the first time in almost a century.
Until his death in 2020, Lewis regularly attended the ceremonies in Selma, and often organized bipartisan groups of congressional members to join him.
The event has become an essential stop for Democratic politicians. Former President Barack Obama spoke at the celebrations shortly after launching his presidential campaign in 2007. He later spoke at the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday in 2015.
Biden previously attended the ceremonies while serving as vice president in 2013, and as a presidential candidate in 2020.
Other Democrats, including those from the Congressional Black Caucus, celebrated Biden’s work for people living in the area. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, made note of tornadoes that ripped through Selma in January, causing widespread damage.
“It is even more special to me this year that we are all gathered here because of the storm that ravaged my hometown of Selma,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham. She praised Biden for his emergency order providing 100% reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to the state for cleanup after the tornadoes hit.
Biden’s speech was but one of several events that took place during the day’s festivities.
During one, Bishop William J. Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign, stressed the scope of poverty in the United States.
“Before we started COVID, there were 140 million poor and low-income people in the country,” Barber said. “That is 43% of the nation, 52% of children.”
Barber also issued a call to action to the crowd.
“Shrinking back is not an option,” Barber said to the crowd, encouraging them to repeat him. “We must stand up and push forward.”
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