The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black activists say the time for pretty speeches is over. They need an action plan from Biden on voting rights.

President Biden speaks at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on Jan. 11 in support of changing the Senate filibuster rules that have stalled voting rights legislation. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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When President Biden and Vice President Harris delivered speeches billed as major voting rights addresses Tuesday in Atlanta, most of Georgia’s top voting rights activists were missing in action. Gubernatorial candidate and voting rights leader Stacey Abrams’s office said she had a scheduling conflict, but several other prominent activists boycotted the event in protest of Biden’s lack of action on the issue.

For many in this new voting rights movement, Biden’s speech amounted to politics as usual in the face of an onslaught of voting restrictions being passed by Republican lawmakers across the country that they say, together, pose an existential threat to America’s multiracial democracy. Since the 2020 election, and former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread election fraud, 19 states have passed 34 laws enacting new restrictions on voting.

President Biden, while speaking in Atlanta on Jan. 11, endorsed changing the Senate filibuster rule to ease passage of voting rights bills. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden calls for changing the filibuster in major voting rights speech

The time for pretty speeches has passed, said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, one of the state’s largest voter engagement groups and one that was seen as key to Democrats winning the state for Biden and both Senate seats in 2020. Ufot said that instead of another speech about how past generations reached across the political aisle to secure voting rights for Black Americans, what’s needed from Biden now is a viable strategy for protecting those rights.

“What we need is a plan,” Ufot said. “What we need are marching orders. How are we headed into the midterms? What posture will we have to adopt? And is it worth it to continue to seek federal protections for voting rights? Or do we need to acknowledge that the Republican crime caucus is so effective . . . that there‘s nothing that our president and vice president or Democrats in the Senate can do and we just need to focus on turnout?”

More than a half-dozen groups that registered and mobilized millions of voters in advance of the 2020 election opted to boycott Biden’s speech, saying the president had not done enough to advance matters of racial equity, particularly voting rights. Some demonstrated near the campus of Clark Atlanta University. Others opted to live-tweet criticism or air their opinions on social media. Still others just did whatever they would normally do on a Tuesday afternoon. The absence of these groups is an ominous sign for the president, raising the question of whether he can again mobilize Black voters ahead of the crucial midterm elections.

In a speech heavy on symbolism and history, Biden pledged to work to change Senate filibuster rules and pass a package of voter rights bills that advocates say is essential for protecting the rights of voters of color. He painted this moment as an inflection point for American democracy and a critical test in whether the country will live up to its promises of creating a democracy that works for all Americans.

“I ask every elected official in America: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King, or George Wallace?” Biden said in Atlanta. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis, or Bull Connor?”

As he often does, Biden talked about his own legislative history and his ability as a senator to work with lawmakers across the aisle to pass legislation. He pointed specifically to how he was able to get staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond to sign on to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He said Tuesday’s speech was a part of his campaign to corral votes for these new voting rights measures.

“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet,” he said in the speech.

The main obstacles to the passage of voting rights legislation are Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), but Biden refrained from singling either out in the speech in Atlanta.

To many activists, Biden hasn’t expended the same political capital on voting rights as he did on other major campaign promises such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the fall.

“I don‘t think they’re up there twiddling their thumbs and not taking it seriously,” said Aimy Steele, executive director of the New North Carolina Project. “But the same way they’ve negotiated with Manchin on other bills, the infrastructure bill being the most prominent one, is the same way they need to negotiate to figure out what we can do to get some of these things passed like the Voting Rights Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed. They need to demonstrate to our community that they are taking our issues seriously.”

Not all Black activists have such a harsh view of Biden’s first year in office.

“I do not want to discount what has been accomplished because it‘s all essential and it’s all necessary,” said Erika Seth Davies, executive director of Rhia Ventures, a social impact company focused on reproductive health and maternity care, who lauds the passage of a bill aimed at Black maternal health. “But I do know Black women still need to see some transformational change.”

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, another voting rights organization that skipped Tuesday’s event, said there seems to be an inability for White Americans to grasp what is happening.

“There’s a tendency in this country for people, particularly in White America, to escape behind American exceptionalism and not to actually deal with what really what is real right in front of our faces,” Brown said. “It’s the same thing that led to the Trump presidency. I think it’s the same thing that led to January 6, and as bad as that was, America is approaching that like it was just one of those freak accidents that happened, because there is a lack of understanding of where we are.

“This isn’t about partisan politics. This is literally the dismantling of the infrastructure that undergirds democracy,” Brown said.

Many activists take Biden’s failure to enact voting rights legislation personally. They spent much of 2020 getting out the vote in the communities of color that propelled the president to victory in key states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania, only for their concerns to take a back seat after the election.

“There are many of us who have been arrested,” Ufot said. “Several of us who have been subjected to death threats. Pictures of my mama’s house were on Parler before it got shut down, encouraging white supremacists to visit harm on me and my family. And so I‘ve lost basically two years of my life.”

cleve.wootson@washpost.com

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