When a U.S. President and Vice President make a roughly 650-mile journey south from Washington, D.C., for a joint appearance, the choice of destination is bound to be meaningful.
“He’s did not just come to [Atlanta], he’s in the AUC,” says Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who researches and writes about voting rights, of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit on Tuesday to Atlanta University Center, the segment of the city that is home to Morehouse and Spelman colleges, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse’s School of Medicine. These are the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that nurtured the minds of everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to voting-rights activist and current Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “When you come to the AUC, you do it to appeal to Black voters and you do it because you expect to be heard by Black voters everywhere.”
The message Biden and Harris, herself an HBCU graduate, had for Black voters was this: they are serious about the need for federal legislation to shield voting rights, particularly those of Americans of color, whose enfranchisement appears under attack.
“Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Biden, in his speech, asked members of Congress, who hold the power to craft and pass voting-rights legislation that could bar or override an unprecedented array of state-level policy activity over the last year.
Read more: How the Voting Rights Act Changed the World
That reference to the President of the Confederacy wasn’t the only parallel drawn between historical figures who stood in the way of equality and those living today. Those who oppose bills to protect voting rights are, in Biden’s words, are operating in the mold of Bull Connor, the notorious Birmingham, Ala., Commissioner of Public Safety who sicced dogs on civil rights protesters in the 1960s. Legislators today who prevent voting-rights action are planting themselves on the side of those who did all in their power to keep a full and unchallenged form of citizenship out of the hands of Black voters, Biden implied—even though some of the people who have thus far stalled reforms are at least two white Senators from his own party.
But some key Black voters weren’t interested in messaging.
Jim Watson—AFP via Getty Images
Missing from the curated crowd behind the President, an array of folks in AUC-branded college gear, were many of the people Biden described in his speech as those who have been doing the hard work to sustain democracy. A multiracial coalition of Georgia-based voting-rights activists, people who in many cases spent much of 2019 and 2020 registering and mobilizing voters of color in the state, announced the day before Biden’s arrival that they would not attend.
In a press call on Monday, they instead described Biden’s planned address as a “photo op” of limited or insufficient value, a moment of empty promises when democracy has been kneecapped by state lawmakers across the country, with little effective intervention by the President or Congress. The activists suggested that Biden, heretofore, has seemed to prioritize theoretical bipartisan action over the actual ability of every eligible American to vote. Biden, a long-serving Senator, had waited almost a year in office to do what he should have some time ago, they said.
“We’ve been saying this for a year now and here we are…a year after the insurrection, coming up on the celebration of MLK Day, and the [King] family has said no celebration without [voting rights] legislation,” explained Cliff Albright, a cofounder of the Atlanta-based political action group Black Voters Matter, on the Zoom call. “And the President is coming to Georgia to deliver a speech.”
The speech itself contained all the language and indicators of a President shadowed by a sense of alarm that democracy is—as Wendy R. Weiser, who directs the democracy program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, put it—at risk of “dying on his watch.” Weiser testified before Congress about the crisis confronting voting rights in October and leads a team of researchers gathering insights and data on what’s happening with voting across the country. The death of democracy may sound like hyperbole but, Weiser says, it is not.
The push to restrict voting rights, and in particular to limit the influence of the nation’s fastest-growing populations—people who will become eligible voters of color—is far from new.
But in the last year, gerrymandering, and the way it can lock in white dominance in American democracy, has been supercharged, Weiser says.
In Georgia, one in five state assembly members who are people of color have seen their districts eliminated by redistricting. Several states have given partisan poll-watchers the ability to operate inside polling sites during elections, raising the prospect of intimidation or worse. Dishonest and inaccurate assessments of the 2020 election have fostered disbelief in the functionality of American elections. One in three election officials do not feel safe at work and nearly one in five identified threats after the 2020 election as a job concern. Resignations have become voluminous. Early indications suggest a disproportionate share of those threatened, walking away or being pushed from their jobs are people of color, Weiser says. Seven states considered but did not pass sweeping legislation that would have allowed what Weiser describes as the partisan overturning or challenging of election results. In Texas the early draft of one bill was, for a time, plainly labeled Overturning an election, Weiser says.
“What we are seeing is an unprecedented multi-pronged assault on our democracy, on elections, on confidence, in the electoral process, the value of equal citizenship,” Weiser explains. “They are being very forthright and stating that they don’t want to see people who don’t look like them or vote like them involved in the electoral process.”
Biden declared Tuesday that he is no longer willing to remain publicly silent himself.
“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with Senators behind the scenes. I’m tired of being quiet,” Biden said on the outdoor stage on Tuesday, declaring himself supportive of unspecified changes to the filibuster, which would, in theory, make it easier to pass voting-rights legislation.
“I don’t know that I have an opinion on the boycott [by activists],” says Jones. “What I will say is that voters want to be addressed. The very point of the franchise is to allow people the opportunity to weigh in on what they want to see….You do yourself a disservice if the coalition that elects you becomes disillusioned.”
The stakes of that franchise are abundantly clear to the Georgia activists, and others around the country. To many, they feel they have already done what weighing in they can. And now that the speeches have been made, they’re ready for what’s next.
The true measure for the President and Vice President, Albright said the day before Biden’s speech, will come in what Biden and Harris do when they return to Washington.