CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Biden, speaking at a historic Black church Monday, accused Republicans of mischaracterizing the experience of Black people in America and touted his own push for racial equity, saying, “Instead of erasing history, we’re making history.”
He framed recent actions by GOP leaders as part of a long pattern of fighting progress. “Every stride forward has often been met with ferocious backlashes from those who fear the progress, from those who exploit that fear for their own personal gain and those who traffic in lies told for profit and power,” Biden said.
Biden spoke at Mother Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist fatally shot nine people in 2015, spurring a national reassessment of the use of the Confederate flag, which the killer had embraced. Monday’s event, which some survivors and victims’ families attended, was intended to court Black voters amid signs that many African Americans are unenthused about Biden’s reelection campaign.
The address was also meant to build on Biden’s argument in a speech Friday that he and former president Donald Trump are engaged in a “battle for the soul of America.” He accused “MAGA Republicans” of “trying to steal history” by mischaracterizing what happened when a mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Biden depicted his presidency, in contrast, as marked by support for democracy and racial equality. He cited his efforts to fight housing discrimination and boost Black-owned businesses, among other issues, as well as his elevation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.
Biden hailed Mother Emanuel’s members for their grace after the 2015 shooting, when a man barged into a Bible study group and sprayed it with bullets. “You showed what America can overcome, what we can be when we want to be something,” he said.
His remarks were briefly interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters chanting, “Cease-fire now!” from the back of the church. Other attendees drowned them out with chants of “Four more years.” Biden said he has been pushing Israel to reduce its operations in Gaza before he continued his speech.
Biden’s speech came amid several baseless assertions on racial history by Republican contenders. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley recently omitted slavery when asked about the cause of the Civil War; she later acknowledged that the conflict was “about slavery” and said she should have stated as much from the outset. Trump said the Civil War “could have been negotiated,” a notion dismissed by historians. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed limitations on how his state’s teachers can discuss Black history.
Trump and other GOP leaders reject the notion that they are unfriendly to Black voters or causes, saying it is liberals who insist on dividing the country and injecting race into matters that should be colorblind. Conservative policies on taxes, regulation and similar issues will lift Black voters as well as other Americans, they say.
Biden is signaling that he sees it as increasingly likely that Trump will be the Republican nominee, mentioning the president numerous times in his speech on Friday near Valley Forge, Pa.
Trump leads DeSantis, his closest Republican competitor, by nearly 50 points in a Washington Post average of national polls from December. This weekend, Trump marked the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by falsely stating that liberals or government figures were behind the assault, calling people detained on riot-related charges “J6 hostages” and claiming that undocumented immigrants are leading the true “insurrection.”
Biden last visited Mother Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, as vice president soon after the 2015 mass killing.
That massacre was a traumatic event in American history. The rampage by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, spurred some states — including South Carolina — to remove the Confederate flag from official settings.
President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy for his friend the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of those killed, closing his remarks with a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” an event that became one of the most-remembered moments of his presidency.
Biden has often said that his decision to run for president in 2020 was spurred by the sight of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017 and Trump’s indifferent response to it. Biden has also shown a fondness for speaking at resonant historic sites, from Gettysburg, Pa., to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
As president, he had previously visited South Carolina three times. Although the state is heavily Republican, it holds an important symbolic value for Biden, since its heavily Black Democratic electorate helped launch Biden to the 2020 nomination after he lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, whose electorates are far less diverse.
The president’s speech Monday took place in the district of Rep. James E. Clyburn, a longtime ally who was crucial to that win in 2020. Clyburn warned Sunday on CNN that the president’s message has yet to break through the “MAGA wall” and that he was “very concerned” about Biden’s standing with Black voters.
In a statement released by Biden’s campaign the same day, Clyburn said the election will determine “whether this country will stand up against hate and vitriol embodied by Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans.”
“Few places embody these stakes like Mother Emanuel AME — a church that has witnessed the horrors of hate-fueled political violence and a church that has spoken to the conscience of this nation and shown us the path forward after moments of division and despair,” Clyburn said.
Vice President Harris also has been reaching out to South Carolina’s Black voters. She spoke Saturday at a women’s retreat at an AME church in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she touted the Biden administration’s work on Black maternal mortality and the appointment of Justice Jackson. Harris is also scheduled to speak at an NAACP event in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 15.
South Carolina will host the first party-sanctioned Democratic primary on Feb. 3, after Biden pushed for a change in the order of the early Democratic nominating contests.
The president faces pressure to prove that he has delivered on his promises to Black Americans and that he would continue to promote equity in a second term. His aides told reporters last week that he remains committed to addressing racially motivated extremism.
“Whether it is white supremacists descending on the historic American city of Charlottesville, the assault on our nation’s capital on January 6 or a white supremacist murdering churchgoers at Mother Emanuel nearly nine years ago, America’s worried about the rise in political violence and determined to stand against it,” deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said.
For Biden, the start of the new year represents a new phase of his campaign. He has recently ramped up his criticism of Trump’s descriptions of his political opponents as “vermin” and immigrants as “poisoning the blood” of the country. Many scholars say Trump’s language is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler and other dictators.
Biden’s campaign last week launched a TV ad, to run in seven swing states, that builds on the argument that Trump and “MAGA extremists” are seeking to erode democracy and promote political violence. He also met Wednesday with academics and historians to discuss threats to democratic institutions.
Matt Viser contributed to this report.