WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — President Joe Biden is set to mark what would have been 94th birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr. with a sermon Sunday at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church which aims to celebrate the civil rights leader’s legacy while reviving the Biden administration’s call for comprehensive voting rights legislation.
Biden’s lack of review of a measure that would have strengthened voting rights protections, a central campaign promise, is one of his biggest disappointments in his first two years in office. The task is even steeper now that Republicans control the House.
Prior to Biden’s visit in the church where King once preached, White House officials said he was committed to advocating for meaningful voting rights action.
“The president will be speaking on a number of issues in the church, including how important it is that we have access to our democracy,” said senior adviser Keisha Lance Bottoms
Bottoms, who was Atlanta’s mayor from 2018 to 2022, said “you can’t come to Atlanta and not recognize the role that the civil rights movement and Dr. King played in where we are in our country’s history.”
The stop at Ebenezer comes at a sensitive time for Biden, after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday that appointment of a special adviser to investigate how the president handled 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.
Democrats Voting Rights Actnamed after John Lewis, the late Georgia civil rights leader and congressman, included provisions that would have made Election Day a national holiday, ensured access to early voting and mail-in ballots, and allowed the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.
The legislation collapsed last year when two senators — Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat then and now an independent — refused to join Democratic colleagues in changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster. Sinema announced last month that she was change her party affiliation, but she continues to caucus with the Democrats.
Biden was invited to Ebenezer, where King served as associate pastor from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1968, by Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor. 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 take into account the equity capital for public works projects as they use money from the administration $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The administration has also acted to terminate the sentencing difference between crack and powder cocaine offencesscrapping a policy widely perceived as racist.
The administration also highlights Biden’s work diversifying 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.
In Atlanta, Biden will become the first sitting president ever to speak at a Sunday service in Ebenezer, Bottoms said.
King, who was assassinated in 1968 after he fueled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would have celebrated his 94th birthday on Sunday. Members of King’s family are expected to attend Biden’s visit.
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.