WASHINGTON — A year after making a forceful appeal for voting rights following a visit to Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual home, President Joe Biden returned to Atlanta on Sunday to pay tribute to the late civil rights leader from his Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit.
It is Biden’s first trip to Georgia since last January, when he visited Ebenezer and met with King’s family ahead of a speech in support of a series of voting reforms that Democrats are still trying to pass.
He is speaking at the invitation of Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who has been senior pastor of Ebenezer since 2005, the White House said.
“Now there are really too many elected officials here to name,” Warnock said as he opened the service. “Who other than Martin Luther King Jr. can get the president of the United States and everybody else in one place.”
King’s sister, Christine King Farris, Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Biden senior adviser and former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are in attendance.
“Mr. President, until the pandemic, she was here every Sunday sitting in that seat. Can you imagine how intimidating it is to stand here and preach with Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister?” Warnock teased, as he introduced Biden. “You get to do that this morning.”
Warnock, who said he was “inspired” by Biden’s “lifelong commitment to service,” noted Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have come to the church, but Warnock said Biden is the first sitting president to deliver to deliver a Sunday sermon at the church.
Biden said that speaking to the congregation is “intimidating” as he began his remarks, adding that his home state of Delaware was segregated and a slave state to “our great shame.”
He was expected to again raise the prospect of enhanced federal oversight of state voting laws when he addresses Ebenezer’s congregation on Sunday.
“It’s a historical church. Everyone who has preached from the pulpit or sat in the congregation understands that Ebenezer has meant a life of purpose, a reminder to fight for voting rights, equality and justice for all,” said veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
“I would wish that more Americans had an opportunity to go to Ebenezer, not only to sit and listen to the sermons up by the choir,” Brazile said, “but to recommit themselves to the struggle and sacrifice that Dr. King gave his life to make this a better world, to make this a more perfect union.”
Biden will deliver his speech at Ebenezer, which boasts a congregation of more than 6,000, on the civil rights leader’s birthday — a federal holiday that will be observed nationally on Monday.
“You should show up and be present at historical moments like that that have real meaning,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “I had to fight for the vote for the King holiday, so I want the president to show up, especially not in an election year.”
Georgia voters last month gave Warnock a full six-year term after previously electing him to fill a two-year vacancy in the Senate. Biden did not visit the state, a battleground state he narrowly won in 2020, during Warnock’s most recent campaign.
Lance Bottoms said Friday that the president would talk about the importance of democracy in his remarks at Ebenezer.
“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,” Lance Bottoms, the White House senior advisor for public engagement, said at a press briefing. “But we still have to push forward. We still have more work to do.”
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Biden is also scheduled to appear at the National Action Network breakfast in Washington that Rev. Al Sharpton hosts each year on the third Monday in January.
In remarks on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy last year, Biden denounced voter suppression, election subversion and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Speaking from the shared grounds of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, Biden pushed lawmakers to pass reforms that would make voting easier.
Biden also endorsed changes to the filibuster — the procedural mechanism that keeps legislation from coming to the floor if it lacks the support of at least 60 senators — to pass federal voting laws.
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Senators on both sides of the aisle oppose changing the filibuster, and Biden has been under pressure from progressives to look for additional executive actions his administration can take.
“If there is more that he can do, we welcome those suggestions. But, as I stand here today, it’s my understanding that we have done all that we can do from the executive branch. Now we need Congress to act,” Lance Bottoms said Friday.
Campbell said that civil rights leaders are reevaluating their strategy with Republicans in control of the House now and the filibuster still in place.
“We have a split Congress now. So how much we can get done, I’m not hopeful in the immediate,” Campbell, who plans to attend to Biden’s remarks at Ebenezer, said. “We’ll be listening intently, but also continue to engage the administration as soon as we can to make sure that we weigh in.”
National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said that civil rights leaders “fought and fought and fought” for voting rights last year and a judgement was made at the time to privately press two Democratic senators who openly opposed eliminating the filibuster, “And it didn’t work.”
“It’s important for Joe Biden to reaffirm his commitment so people don’t think that because we couldn’t do it, we’re going to stop fighting for it,” the civil rights leader who is close to the White House said. “So I want to see him fight for voting rights until hell freezes over. And then I want him to fight on the ice.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLK’s Ebenezer church in Atlanta on Sunday hosting Biden sermon