Biden, in Selma, Says Voting Rights Are Still ‘Under Assault’

SELMA, Ala. — President Biden told a crowd gathered to commemorate the 58th anniversary of a brutal police attack on Black protesters that the right to vote was “under assault” as Republicans introduce laws to restrict ballot access and redraw voting districts.

Observing the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an event that electrified the civil rights movement, Mr. Biden said the marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, had bucked the “forces of hate” and encouraged activism that led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act five months later.

“They forced the country to confront hard truths,” Mr. Biden said, “and to act to keep the promise of America alive.”

Mr. Biden’s trip to Selma, the first he has made as president, came amid expectations that he would soon announce another bid for the presidency, a candidacy that will require the support of Black voters who were decisive in helping him win a first term. Recent polling has shown that a majority of Black voters believe Mr. Biden should run again in 2024, and in Selma, marchers shouted “We love Joe” and “Bring it home” as the president spoke.

Still, in a crowd of gospel singers, civil rights leaders, local politicians and residents of Selma, many of whom were old enough to remember the original march, several attendees said they were hurt by rising inflation. They also expressed frustration with the administration’s progress on voting rights and concern that Republicans would move to cut into entitlement programs, including Social Security, to balance the federal budget.

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Mary Hall McGuire, 80, whose father, David Hall, offered the use of his farmland to civil rights protesters traveling from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, said she was worried about the rising cost of living and the strain it puts on the $1,600 income she receives each month from Social Security benefits.

Ms. Hall McGuire still lives on her father’s land with her husband, Johnny, who noted that residents of Selma had been devastated by a tornado that hit the town on Jan. 12. Mr. Biden had authorized an increase in federal funding to help clean up the area, but the couple said that the town had long been economically depressed and was brought to a limp after the storm.

“It’s moving slowly,” Mr. McGuire said. “People are suffering after that tornado.”

During his remarks, Mr. Biden took aim at efforts by Republican politicians — most notably Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is pondering running for president in 2024 — to restrict how race-related issues are taught.

“We can’t just choose what we want to know and what we should know,” Mr. Biden said. “We should learn everything. The good, the bad, the truth, who we are as a nation. Everyone should know the truth of Selma.”

Mr. Biden also called out redistricting in Alabama, where activists have said votes of the state’s Black residents have been diluted.

“As I come here in commemoration, not for show, Selma is a reckoning,” Mr. Biden said. “The right to vote, the right to vote, to have your vote counted, is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it, anything’s possible. Without it, without that right, nothing is possible.”

While in office, Mr. Biden has pushed for two pieces of voting rights legislation, including one bill named for Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon and Georgia Democrat who was among the demonstrators beaten while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.

The bill named for Mr. Lewis, who died in 2020, would have restored a key piece of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The provision relied on a formula to identify states with a history of discrimination and require that those jurisdictions clear any changes to their voting processes with the federal government. Those protections were stripped away by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But the bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, failed in a Democratic-controlled Congress, and it has little chance of passing now that the House has flipped to Republican control. The For the People Act, an overhaul of federal election laws, also failed.

The president delivered a fiery speech in 2021 warning that Republican-led efforts to restrict voting across the country constituted the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” But in recent months, the tone of Mr. Biden’s impassioned speeches has changed. Now, when the president speaks on the issue, his remarks have given way to something close to public acknowledgment that the fight for voting rights might go longer than he initially promised.

“Look, I get accused of being an inveterate optimist,” Mr. Biden said in a speech in January at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often preached. “Progress is never easy, but redeeming the soul of the country is absolutely essential.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a confidant of Mr. Biden who joined him in Selma on Sunday, said he and other civil rights leaders had hoped that the president and Vice President Kamala Harris, who had asked to take the lead on voting rights, would have “pushed more” for the voting rights bills. But he said the president had assured him that the Biden administration would do more to bring awareness to the issue.

“This puts the public on notice that we still don’t have a voting rights bill, and we’re still marching across a bridge named for a Ku Klux Klan member, where John Lewis spilled blood,” Mr. Sharpton said, referring to Mr. Pettus, who was also an Alabama senator.

During a march to the halfway point of the bridge, Mr. Biden linked arms with Representative Terri A. Sewell, an Alabama Democrat and a longtime Biden supporter. As the cluster of marchers walked, Mr. Biden looked over and spoke to Mr. Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was being pushed in a wheelchair.

The president and his fellow marchers climbed to the part of the bridge where, 58 years ago, peaceful protesters were beaten with nightsticks and tear gassed by a group of white police officers. Mr. Biden stopped to listen as the group prayed for him but also reminded him that without “Selma’s shoulders” there would not be a Biden presidency.

Mr. Biden said “Amen,” and then walked to his presidential limousine, giving the marchers a thumbs up before climbing into the Beast and leaving them on the bridge.

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