President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on Tuesday, touring Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church — where King served as pastor until his death in 1968 — and laying a wreath at the crypt where the civil rights icon and his wife, Coretta, are interred.
Dr. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III — two of King’s children — were also on hand and stood nearby during the wreath-laying ceremony.
According to a pool report from reporters with them, Biden and Harris met privately with the King family prior to the ceremony.
The president, 79, and vice president, 57, touched down in Atlanta aboard Air Force One on Tuesday morning. The two were joined by lawmakers including former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock (who previously served as co-paster at Ebenezer Baptist Church) and Jon Ossoff.
Following their meeting with the Kings, Biden and Harris delivered public remarks on the importance of passing federal voting legislation to create national standards for election management or reinstate a federal review of changes to state and local election laws.
Such legislation has so far been stymied in Congress because of objections by Republicans, who say the reforms amount to federal intrusion.
Speaking to reporters about Air Force One, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Atlanta was a significant backdrop for Biden and Harris’ speech, as it is one of 19 states to pass “voter suppression laws attacking the right to vote” in 2020.
Psaki added that Biden would use his remarks on Tuesday to “forcefully advocate for protecting the most bedrock American right: The right to vote and have your voice counted in a free, fair and secure election that is not tainted by partisan manipulation.”
According to the progressive-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, at least 17 Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted new laws that restrict voting access around the country.
Despite arguments that the laws ensure election integrity and guard against wrongdoing at the ballot box, activists highlight how such Republican-backed measures have in fact created new hurdles to voting by limiting absentee ballots and imposing additional ID requirements.
Many of those measures are based on former President Donald Trump‘s false claims of election fraud — evidence of which has not been backed up by evidence or in cases argued in courts across the country.
Democrats are arguing for broad electoral reforms and have thrown their support by two bills: one that would restore key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and another that would expand ballot access, making it easier — rather than harder — to exercise the right to vote.
Democrats have recently said that revising U.S. Senate rules may be necessary to pass voting rights legislation, so that Republicans cannot use the filibuster to block debate on the bills.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden said Tuesday. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”
Harris made a similar plea to lawmakers, urging them to take action to strengthen voting rights: “The bottom line is this: Years from now our children and our grandchildren. They will ask us about this moment. They will look back on this time and they will ask us not about how we felt. They will ask us what did we do.”
Some Georgia voting rights activists chose to boycott Biden’s speech on voting rights Tuesday, arguing it was a mere “photo op” when more concrete action was needed.
Speaking to reporters outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday, Biden offered a word of confidence to those activists who worry about the future of the bills.
Asked by reporters to comment on whether he has the votes needed to pass voting legislation, Biden pulled down his mask to say: “Keep the faith.”