As Brown sees it, she helped empower Democrats, but a year later, she and other black voters are worse off when it comes to their ability to vote. There is frustration in her voice as she explains that voting rights still do not seem to be a priority for the administration.
“It makes the job harder for us,” Brown said. “What do I have to go back to tell people? …. How do I convince them to show up again?”
Brown’s skepticism illustrated the political thicket that Biden entered as he landed in Atlanta on Tuesday to deliver his final speech on the need to protect democracy, implement electoral reforms and, if necessary, revise Senate rules. After months of inactivity, those who have demanded his help increasingly doubt he can deliver.
A number of groups boycotted Biden’s speech. And the state’s most high-profile voting rights activist — governor candidate Stacey Abrams — also failed to show up, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict.
Biden’s speech, delivered on a brisk afternoon at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, served not only to spotlight the onslaught of the state’s Republican voting laws restricting access to ballots, but to strengthen the democratic foundation it believes. Brown is disillusioned, keep involved.
The president, who spent more than 30 years in a Senate that has now become an eyesore, has continued to oppose anti-democratic forces led by his predecessor. Calling himself an “institutionalist,” he denounced the room in which he once served as a “mold of his former self” and warned that the “threat to our democracy is so grave” that it warranted “getting rid of the filibuster” as it was voted that rights legislation cannot pass in any other way.
Appealing to the historical sense of national lawmakers, Biden reminded the public that he is “so damn old” that he was alive and began college in 1963 when Fannie Lou Hamer was pulled from a bus, jailed and beaten after he had registered voters in Mississippi. He asked state and state lawmakers how they would like to be remembered as they face the same questions as their predecessors, whether in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Selma or during Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At times, it seemed as if Biden was asking himself the question as well.
“I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered? Result moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said. “Do you want to side with Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to side with John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to side with Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? Now is the time to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
Those who did come to see Biden speak said they were eager to hear him and Vice President Kamala Harris. In interviews with a dozen attendees, including organizers, city councilors, students and civil rights leaders, two things were reiterated: a desire for Biden to formulate a plan for the Senate’s approval of the two bills and an unabashed, persistent and vocal approval of changing or removing the filibuster.
“I wish they’d done it sooner, but I’m glad they’re doing it now,” said Melanie Campbell, who attended a virtual meeting last week with White House officials and other civil rights leaders. Campbell and other leading black women’s organizers had asked Harris and Biden to come to Georgia.
Some in attendance argued that Biden was not the hurdle. “We should all remember that FDR and LBJ had a significant majority in Congress. The problem is the Senate, not the President, and unfortunately, until we change the Senate composition, advancing civil rights will be an uphill battle,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of the national South Asian civil society organization IMPACT, which attended the speech in Atlanta.
But for others, skepticism wasn’t too far beneath the surface. Gerald Riggs, a member of the Atlanta NAACP, issued a warning similar to Brown’s as he mixed with other local organizers, elected officials and agents waiting for BIden.
“We’ve mobilized far too many people to the polls promising to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, neither of which have passed,” Riggs said. “So I speak on behalf of all the activists I’ve mobilized and the voters we’ve mobilized. They want to hear about that. No more excuses.”
The White House has repeatedly defended the order of Biden’s agenda, noting that he entered the Oval Office at an unprecedented time when a global pandemic raged and Americans suffered an economic downturn. Aid workers also note that attacks on democracy and the protection of voting rights are the reason Biden launched his campaign, while claiming Biden was far from shy about the threats facing the country.
Biden’s speech came two days after the new session of the Georgian state legislature, as Republicans tried to elaborate on the bill they passed last year that was spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. This time around, some Republicans are pushing for a move to ban drop boxes for absentee ballots altogether.
Tuesday morning, in the Georgia state house, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, outlined his own proposals for federal election legislation — including amending the constitution to require “citizens only votes” and state voter identification legislation — as he Biden accused of a “federal election takeover.” Baoky Vu, a Republican who was pushed from his position on the DeKalb County electoral council and reprimanded by his local party for opposing his party’s restrictive election laws, said he supports Raffensperger’s re-election bid. But he also remains concerned about the ballots passed in Georgia last year.
“This is a step-by-step, deliberate attempt to undermine the very institutions of democracy itself,” Vu said of the dynamics in Georgia and across the country. “That’s why I think it’s so important to get people to focus on what can be done at the federal level.”
While some Georgian Democrats were happy to see the president spotlight those laws, others were curious as to why Biden wasn’t elsewhere. Among the dozens of local Georgia Democrats who chose not to show up on Tuesday was Erick Allen, lieutenant governor candidate and chair of the Cobb County delegation in the state house.
“I think it’s appropriate to make this your first stop to honor the legacy of John Lewis’s work, as this is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act they’re trying to get,” Allen said. “But I think there are other places that need to hear this message to pressure their senators to get this done. Georgia gave him the Senate majority. So we did as much as we could.”
“If you go to Georgia, you also have to announce that the next time Air Force One tires hit the ground, it will be in Arizona and then West Virginia,” Allen continued, referring to the home states of the two senate states. Democrats most resistant to changing the filibuster rules: Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (DW.Va.)
But it wasn’t just Biden’s presence, but Abrams’s absence that caused a stir at Tuesday’s event. In the security queue, several city council members and local Democratic officials wondered aloud why Georgia’s nominee for governor was not present.
“It’s all over the news,” said one woman.
Abrams would later make a statement emphasizing that she and Biden had been on the phone in the morning and had a conversation that “reaffirmed” their “shared commitment to America’s project of freedom and democracy.”
For the activists who watched, talking about who was and who was not was ultimately a distraction from the big question: what was next? Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, praised Biden for his “powerful words,” but said he “hadn’t prioritized protecting voting rights in the same way that he prioritized other policy issues such as BBB, infrastructure law, or Covid- staff.” It was time, he said, for the president to recalibrate the focus.
“Using the bully’s pulpit is something every president uses to build momentum for policy initiatives. But he did today. But until we actually have a bill on his desk ready for signature, there’s a lot more work to do.”