President Joe Biden made a historic pilgrimage to the American Freedom Church on Sunday to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., saying democracy is in peril and that the civil rights leader’s life and legacy “show us the way and we must pay attention.” .
As the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday morning sermon at Ebenezer King Baptist Church, Biden brought up a telling question that King himself once asked the nation.
“He said, ‘Where do we go from here?'” Biden said from the pulpit. “Well, my message to this nation today is: we go forward, we go together, when we choose democracy over autocracy, loving community over chaos, when we choose believers and dreams, to be doers, to be fearless, always keeping the faith.”
In a divided country, only two years removed from a violent uprisingBiden told worshipers, elected officials and dignitaries that “the battle for the soul of this nation is eternal. It is a constant struggle … between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice.”
He spoke out against those who “trade in racism, extremism, insurgency” and said the fight to protect democracy is being fought in the courts and at the ballot box, in protests and in other ways. “At our best, American promise wins… But I need not tell you that we are not always at our best. We are wrong. We fail and fall.”
The stop in Ebenezer comes at a tender moment for Biden after Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced the appointment special counsel to investigate the president’s handling of classified documents after leaving the vice presidency in 2017. The White House on Saturday revealed that additional classified records were found at Biden’s home near Wilmington, Delaware.
Representing Biden, the church’s senior pastor, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, noted that the president was a “devout Catholic” for whom “this Baptist service could be a little boisterous and lively. But I saw him clapping.”
King, “the greatest American prophet of the 20th century,” as Warnock said, served as co-pastor from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1968.
Warnock, like many Democrats on the battlefield who won the re-election distanced himself from Biden during the 2022 campaign when the president’s approval ratings lagged and inflation rose.
But with the election behind him and a full six-year term, Warnock fully embraced Biden. Toward the close, he asked Biden to come before the church and asked Ebenezer’s congregation to pray for the president as he listed several of Biden’s legislative accomplishments.
“This, my friends, is God’s work,” Warnock said, adding that Biden “has something to do with it.”
As Biden begins to turn his attention to his expected re-election in 2024, Georgia is going to get a lot of his attention.
In 2020, Biden managed to win in Georgia, as well as in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the black vote made up a disproportionately large share of the Democratic Party electorate. Turning out black voters in these states will be critical to Biden’s 2024 hopes.
The White House has tried to push Biden’s agenda in minority communities. The White House cited efforts to encourage states to account for capital for public works projects as they spend money from the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The administration also took steps to end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes, reversing a policy widely seen as racist.
The administration is also highlighting Biden’s work to diversify the federal judiciary, including his appointment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first black woman on the Supreme Court and the confirmation of 11 black women judges on federal appeals courts—more than those appointed to those powerful courts under all previous presidents combined.
Biden failure to win a pass The measure, which would strengthen voting rights protections, a key campaign promise, is one of his biggest disappointments in his first two years in office. The task is even more difficult now that Republicans control the House of Representatives.
In his speech, the president said that despite all the progress the United States has made, the country has now reached a critical point in its history. He said democracies can backslide, noting the collapse of the institutional structures of democracy in places like Brazil.
“Progress is never easy, but it is always possible, and things are getting better on our way to a more perfect union,” he said. “But at this critical moment, we know there’s a lot of work to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights, protecting our democracy. And I remember that our job is to save America’s soul.”
This moment, he said, “is a time of choice. … Are we the people who will choose democracy over autocracy? You couldn’t have asked that question 15 years ago because everyone thought democracy was established… But it’s not.” Americans, he said, “must choose community over chaos. . . . These are the vital issues of our time and the reason why I am here as your president. I believe that Dr. King’s life and legacy show us the way and we must pay attention.”
King, who was born on January 15, 1929, was assassinated at the age of 39. He helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The service was attended by members of King’s family, including his 95-year-old older sister, Christine King Farris.
“I’ve spoken in front of parliaments, kings, queens, world leaders … but this is intimidating,” Biden said as he began his sermon.
The president plans to be in Washington on Monday to speak at the National Action Network’s annual King Holiday Breakfast.
This story has been updated to reflect that Christine King Ferris is the sister of Martin Luther King Jr.