The U.S. still hasn’t met the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, President Joe Biden said Monday, the 60th anniversary of one of the movement’s most iconic events.
Six decades to the day after the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Biden urged Americans not to become complacent in fighting hate.
“All of us need to say clearly and forcefully as we can: Hate will not prevail in America,” he told a reception for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group founded after a meeting with President John Kennedy in June 1963.
Later that summer, King and other civil rights leaders organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than 200,000 attended the August 28, 1963, event, which is credited with advancing support for civil rights and leading to the enactment of major laws in the 1960s.
But, Biden reflected, recent events demonstrated the cause marchers fought for in 1963 has not been achieved.
The event was planned before last weekend, but gained urgency after a white gunman on Saturday killed three Black people near a historically Black university in Jacksonville, Florida.
Federal authorities are investigating the shootings as a possible hate crime and “act of violent domestic extremism it clearly is,” Biden said.
“White supremacy is a poison,” he said. “It’s a poison that’s been allowed to grow faster and faster in our communities.”
In a roughly 20-minute speech, Biden compared the Jacksonville shooting to the violent backlash seen during the 1960s, when Black churches were bombed and leaders such as King and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers were assassinated. The meeting between Kennedy and civil rights leaders that led to the formation for the Lawyers’ Committee came in the wake of Evers’ killing, Biden said.
Lawyers’ Committee President Damon T. Jones introduced Biden and called him a champion for the group’s goals. He praised Biden for working to relieve student debt, advance racial equity, improve police accountability, working toward health equity and fair housing and defending diversity and inclusion.
“The times we’re in tell us that the work is more urgent than ever. Together, we must continue to fight,” Jones said. “We’re fortunate to have a president who understands that to his core.”
Civil rights remains “the unfinished fight of America,” Biden said. He praised the work of the Lawyers’ Committee toward voting rights, employment, education, housing and more.
Biden called for legislation to ban high-capacity guns and assault weapons.
In less specific policy appeals, he also said the country should address “the relentless exploitation of the internet” for recruitment and organization by hate groups and lambasted efforts by some Republicans and activists and the state and local levels to ban certain books and the teaching of periods of U.S. history including the Civil Rights Movement.
Conservative groups across the country have for years sought to remove “critical race theory” curricula from schools, but have defined that term – predominantly confined to universities and law schools – to mean even the most basic teaching of a history of racial strife in the country.
“History is being erased,” he said. “Books are being banned.”
Biden quoted the late John Lewis, a civil rights leader and the youngest speaker at the 1963 march who went on to become a U.S. House member from Georgia.
“Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight,” he said.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person to hold that office, said in a statement Monday that the spirit of the 1963 march should continue.
“The March on Washington was historic, but it was neither the beginning nor the end of the movement for civil rights,” she said. “Today, as extremist so-called leaders attempt to erase our history and roll back progress on voting rights, reproductive freedom, and LGBTQ+ equality, Americans are fighting for justice and equity.”
Earlier Monday, Biden spoke with organizers of the 1963 march, civil rights leaders and members of King’s family.
Referencing the Jacksonville shooting and efforts to block discussion of the country’s history of racism, Biden bemoaned that progress on reconciliation had not come further.
“A lot is happening (that) you wouldn’t think would be happening today, on the anniversary of the 60 years of the” march, he said.