By AAMER MADHANI (Associated Press)
ATLANTA (AP) – President Joe Biden made a historic pilgrimage Sunday to “America’s Church of Freedom” to mark Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, saying democracy was at a perilous moment and that the civil rights leader’s life and legacy “show us the way, and we should pay attention.”
As the first sitting president to deliver a sermon Sunday morning at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Biden quoted the telling question King himself once posed to the nation.
“He said, ‘Where do we go from here?'” Biden said from the pulpit. “Well, my message to this nation on this day is that we go forward, we go together, when we choose democracy over autocracy, a beloved society over chaos, when we choose believers and the dreams, to be doers, to be fearless, always keep the faith.”
In a divided country, just two years removed from a violent uprising, “the battle for the soul of this nation is eternal. It is a constant battle … between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice,” Biden told congregations, elected officials and high-ranking persons.
He spoke out against those who “deal in racism, extremism, sedition” and said the fight to protect democracy was played out in courthouses and ballot boxes, protests and other avenues. “In our best case, the American promise wins out. … But I don’t need to tell you that we are not always at our best. We are fallible. We fail and fall.’
The stop at Ebenezer comes at a sensitive time for Biden, after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday the appointment of a special counsel to investigate how the president handled classified documents after leaving the vice presidency in 2017. The White House revealed Saturday that additional classified documents records were found at Biden’s home near Wilmington, Delaware.
In introducing Biden, the church’s senior pastor, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, noted that the president was “a devout Catholic” for whom “this Baptist service can be a little rambunctious and lively. But I saw him over there clapping his hands.”
King, whom Warnock called “the greatest American prophet of the 20th century,” served as co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.
Warnock, like many state Democrats in the battleground state to win re-election in 2022, kept his distance from Biden during the campaign as the president’s approval rating faltered and the inflation rate rose.
But as Biden begins to turn his attention to an expected re-election effort in 2024, Georgia will get plenty of his attention.
In 2020, Biden managed to win Georgia as well as closely contested Michigan and Pennsylvania, where black votes made up a disproportionate share of the Democratic electorate. Showing black voters in these states will be critical to Biden’s 2024 hopes.
The White House has tried to advance Biden’s agenda in minority communities. The White House has cited efforts to encourage states to consider equity for public works projects when using money from the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The administration has also acted to end the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses, abolishing a policy widely seen as racist.
The administration also highlights Biden’s work to diversify the federal judiciary, including his appointment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the confirmation of 11 black female judges to federal appeals courts — more than those installed to the powerful courts under all previous presidents combined.
King, who was born on January 15, 1929, was killed at the age of 39. He helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Members of King’s family attended the service, including his 95-year-old – old sister, Christine King Farris.
The president plans to be in Washington on Monday to speak at the National Action Network’s annual King Holiday Breakfast.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to reflect that Christine King Ferris is Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister