Biden Draws Domestic Terror Line From Birmingham to El Paso

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(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden drew a direct line between the violence of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and recent mass shootings in a speech on race and domestic terrorism in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, seeking to unify the congregation – and the country – in a fight against hatred and injustice.

“The domestic terrorism of white supremacy has been the antagonist of our highest ideals from before our founding,” Biden said at the 56th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, where four black girls were killed and more than a dozen others were injured after Klansmen bombed the church in 1963.

He added: “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 ‘Hispanic invasion of Texas.’”

Mother Emanuel refers to the African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine people in 2015. The pastor of that church, Rev. Eric Manning, attended Biden’s address.

In his 20-minute speech, Biden recounted the impact the bombing had on the Civil Rights movement, most notably the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Biden also emphasized the importance of remembering the bombing’s personal cost. With a handful of relatives of the four slain girls in attendance, Biden, who lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in 1972, shared the pain of families that lose children at a young age.

“When you lose a child so young the loss is always punctuated by questions,” he said. “What would she have looked like? What might she have done? What memories will never be?”

But, Biden, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said their deaths implore others to work to combat racism and injustice. Biden then recounted the now-familiar refrain about the “defining moments” in his life, including the death of his first wife and daughter and later his son, Beau, that led him to a life of public service.

And as he often does, Biden recalled the march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 as a moment that he believed showed the country was “in a battle for the soul of this nation.” As congregants chanted “Amen” and “all right,” Biden passionately described the need to fight hate in all forms.

Revulsion to Hate

“Hate only hides, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “If you give it oxygen it comes out from under the rocks. It can be defeated or drowned out — but never vanquished. But we also should realize that revulsion to hate at its ugliest can summon the very best in us.”

Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, is highly popular among black voters, a crucial constituency in the party, and his speech on Sunday showed his appeal.

“It was right on the mark,” said Bobbie Adams, 82, a black woman who was born in Birmingham and remembers the bombing. “It was just beautiful. He told us what we needed to know. He’s going to bring civility back to our country.”

She added: “He’s a Christian man. We need a Christian man to lead us.”

As Biden continues his third run for the presidency, he will need to hold onto to black-voter support -- particularly in South Carolina, the fourth state in the 2020 primary calendar, where more than 60% of the Democratic primary voters are black. He plans to campaign there alongside some of his rivals on Monday.

Record on Race

But, Biden has also faced criticism for his record on race. He was the architect of the 1994 crime bill that critics say resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color. One of his rivals, California Senator Kamala Harris, also attacked him in the first Democratic debate for his past positions on school busing and integration.

Biden also came under fire after the third Democratic debate on Thursday for his answer on the legacy of slavery.

“We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want -- they don’t know quite what to do.”

Some critics suggested Biden had inferred that black parents were unable to raise their own children. His campaign rejected that characterization, saying the former vice president was talking about his proposal to invest resources to under-served schools.

Shirley Gavin Floyd said she was frustrated by Biden’s comments at the debate, but she said Sunday’s speech helped her move on.

‘Right Speech’

“Today in my mind, he cleared that all up,” said Floyd, 66, who is also black and a Birmingham resident. “I think he delivered the right speech.”

But, Floyd isn’t committed to supporting Biden in the Alabama primary on Super Tuesday on March 3. She also likes Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Richard Dickerson, who served in the Clinton administration but then moved to Birmingham years ago, said he supports Biden and appreciated his speech and visit to the church. But Dickerson, 64, said he was looking for more from white politicians.

“Whenever there’s confusion, racial chaos and destruction, white people run to black churches,” he said. “I think they also need to go to white churches. Black people didn’t create racism. We weren’t the bombers.”

Biden has also rebutted critics of his record on race by pointing to his service as vice president to the nation’s first black president. He’s closely hewed to former President Barack Obama’s legacy throughout the campaign, and he invoked Obama multiple times on Sunday -- including the former president’s speech after the shooting in Charleston when he sang “Amazing Grace.”

As he concluded his speech, Biden received a standing ovation and later joined the congregation in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Biden, standing in the front row and locking hands with the people next to him, belted out the lyrics as he swayed with the congregation.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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