BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Speaking on the anniversary of a 1963 bombing that killed four black girls and galvanized the civil rights movement, former vice president Joe Biden said that the hatred on display that day is not dead — and that Americans are still grappling with white supremacy, which “has been the antagonist of our highest ideals from before our founding.”
“Lynch mobs — arsonists — bombmakers and lone gunmen. And as we all now realize, this violence does not live in the past,” Biden said to a mostly black crowd in a sanctuary illuminated by a stained-glass image of a black Jesus.
“The same poisonous ideology that lit the fuse at 16th Street pulled the trigger in Mother Emanuel, unleashed the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh and Poway, and saw a white supremacist gun down innocent Latino immigrants in an El Paso parking lot with military-grade weapons, declaring it would stop a quote, ‘Hispanic invasion of Texas.’ We have not relegated racism and white supremacy to the pages of history.”
Biden did not mention President Trump and alluded only obliquely to his own White House aspirations, but his remarks at the 16th Street Baptist Church underscore the prominent and often volatile role that race has played in this presidential campaign. Biden, who said he was motivated to enter the 2020 race after seeing the rally of Ku Klux Klan members and avowed neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, has positioned himself as a candidate who would help heal a divided nation that has never fully overcome its racist past.
On Sept. 15, 1963, KKK members planted dynamite beneath the steps of the church’s basement. At 10:22 a.m., the bomb went off, killing four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — who were changing into their choir robes.
The church had served as a meeting point for black people protesting institutionalized racism in Birmingham and the rest of the South. The bombing — one of dozens directed at black churches and homes throughout the decade in a city that was nicknamed “Bombingham” — drew international attention to the civil rights movement.
A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. A year after that, the Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests that had been used across the Jim Crow South to suppress the black vote.
Biden told the crowd that the bombing motivated him to leave a white-shoe law firm and become a public defender — and, ultimately, to pursue public service.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden has argued that he has been working on behalf of civil rights for decades, even as he has faced questions about past views opposing forced busing in education.
What’s more, critics have wondered aloud whether the standard-bearer of the diverse Democratic Party of the 21st century should be a 76-year-old white man, especially in a campaign field that features two prominent black senators, several women and a Latino.
Other Democrats in the race contend that they are best positioned to pick up the mantle of the civil rights movement and to address the issues of black voters, a critical Democratic bloc.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said his administration would address the “disparities within the disparity,” problems that have an outsize effect on black Americans. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has released plans, named after prominent black historical figures, that would address problems pervasive in black America.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is black, has described himself as a child of the civil rights movement whose parents had to fight discrimination to buy a home in the all-white neighborhood where he grew up. This summer, Booker spoke at the site of another black tragedy, Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine parishioners were killed by a white supremacist as they prayed.
Biden and Booker have clashed over Biden’s statements about his fine working relationship with segregationist senators during his first years serving in Congress.
“I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my antibusing legislation to a vote,” Biden wrote on June 30, 1977, to Sen. James Eastland, who had promised to stop whites and blacks from eating together in Washington and had once called African Americans “an inferior race.”
The argument bled into the first Democratic presidential debate, where Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is of black and Indian descent, said Biden’s early opposition to busing pained her personally, particularly because as a second-grader, she had been bused to a recently integrated school.
Biden’s earlier statements have resurfaced and sparked new criticism, including in the most recent debate.
“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” he said in 1975. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
Biden and supporters have argued that the criticism levied against him is his opponents’ attempt to gain momentum by rehashing the past and that he has been a stalwart defender of civil rights. Any questions about his racial bona fides, he has said repeatedly on the stump, should be dispelled by the fact that the nation’s first black president chose him as a running mate.
The criticism has not pulled black voters away from Biden. In South Carolina, a state where nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters are black, Biden has a commanding 43 percent support, according to a CBS News poll in early September.
Biden said at a fundraiser in Houston last week that he also is popular in Alabama, a state with a large African American population. “To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only guy to get invited to campaign in Alabama,” he said.
In Birmingham, he did not mention the campaign during the church visit. Instead, he spoke with the families of the victims of the 1963 bombing and bowed his head in prayer as a wreath was placed at a memorial there.
He told the church that the nation is engaged in the same debate the 16th Street Baptist Church has been a part of for 56 years: hatred vs. love, division vs. unity.
“Now hate is on the rise again, and we’re at a defining moment again in American history,” Biden said. “Who are we? What do we want to be?”