BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Visiting a black church bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Sunday the country hasn't “relegated racism and white supremacy to the pages of history.”
He spoke to parishioners at 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham as they commemorated the 56th anniversary of the bombing that killed four black girls in 1963.
“It's in the wake of these before-and-after moments when the choice between good and evil is starkest,” he said.
The former vice president called out the names of the victims – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. He drew nods of affirmation as he warned that “the same poisonous ideology that lit the fuse on 16th street” has yielded recent tragedies including in 2015 at a black church in South Carolina, in 2018 at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and in August at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart frequented by Latinos.
He condemned institutional racism as the direct legacy of slavery and lamented the nation has “never lived up to” the ideals of equality written into its founding documents. Then he added a personal note. “Those who are white try,” Biden said, “but we can never fully understand.”
Biden praised the congregation for offering an example of “rebirth and renewal” to those communities and to a nation he said must recommit itself to “giving hate no safe harbor – demonizing no one, not the poor, the powerless, the immigrant or the 'other.'”
Biden's appearance in Birmingham comes at a political inflection point for the Democrats' 2020 polling leader. He is trying to capitalize on his strength among older black voters even as some black and other nonwhite leaders, particularly younger ones, view Biden more skeptically.
From his long time in government, as a senator and vice president, the 76-year-old has deep ties in the black community. Although Biden didn't mention President Donald Trump in his remarks, he has made withering critiques of the president's rhetoric and policies.
Yet Biden also draws critical, even caustic appraisals from younger nonwhite activists who take issue with his record. That includes his references to working productively alongside segregationist senators in the 1970s to distrust over his lead role in a 1994 crime law that critics frame as partially responsible for mass incarceration, especially of black men.
Biden's audience seemed to reflect his relative popularity with black voters more than the fierceness of his critics. Parishioners wielded their cellphones when he arrived with Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, a white politician beloved in the church for his role as the lead prosecutor who secured convictions in the bombing case decades after it occurred.