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Biden amplifies civil rights legacy in NAACP speech

President Joe Biden and Vice-President Sen. Kamala Harris.

President Joe Biden delivered a stirring speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Friday to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. That ruling struck down the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that institutionalized racial segregation under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal.’

“My name’s Joe Biden and I’m a lifetime member of the NAACP,” injecting a moment of levity by adding: “When I said that a little earlier to the president, he said: ‘Are your dues paid up?’ I got to check.’

“Together, the NAACP and this museum are monuments to the power of Black history,” Biden added, “and Black history is American history. We have a whole group of people out there trying to rewrite history, trying to erase history.”

He called the historic museum a “tribute to heroes known and unknown who pursued our nation’s North Star.” The president also drew historical parallels between the civil rights struggles of the past and contemporary efforts to dismantle affirmative action and diversity initiatives.

He would later join Vice President Kamala Harris in a meeting with leaders of the Divine Nine, a coalition of historically Black sororities and fraternities, reinforcing his commitment to civil rights and equity. But during his address, he evoked the courage of the Little Rock Nine, who faced violent opposition in 1957 while integrating Central High School, linking their bravery to modern-day challenges against equality.

“The Little Rock Nine were met with vitriol and violence,” Biden said. “Today the vitriol comes in other insidious forms—an extreme movement led by my predecessor and his MAGA Republican allies.”

He also criticized the Supreme Court’s recent decision to limit affirmative action in college admissions. “They want a country for some, not for all,” the president said.

And turning his attention back to the plight of American schools since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Biden said: “Because of the nation’s legacy of discrimination, Black children start school with an average of seven months behind their White peers in reading.

“But one year of universal, high-quality pre-K could eliminate 98% of that gap—just one year. And children who go to preschool are nearly 50% more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a two-year or four-year degree, no matter what their background is. That’s why my administration is working to support Black children.

“As soon as I came into office, I signed the American Rescue Plan. And I’m going to be political by just saying this, because we’re having problems: not one Republican voted for it, not one.  But the American Rescue Plan expanded Childcare Tax Credits that delivered monthly checks to working families that cut Black child poverty in half. My Republican friends let it expire.

“Well, I’m going to keep fighting to re-establish it.  We’re going to get it re-established. And I’m going to keep fighting to make sure preschool is universal for every three- and four-year-old in America. We can afford to do this. It’s not hard. Instead of giving multibillion-dollar breaks to the super wealthy, let’s make the wealthy begin to pay their fair share of taxes. We can afford all this.”

The president’s remarks were part of a broader effort to shore up support among Black voters, a crucial demographic that was instrumental in his 2020 victory. According to polling by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, there is a widespread sense of disappointment in Biden’s performance among some of his staunchest supporters, including Black adults.

On Sunday, May 19, Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College, a prestigious historically Black institution in Atlanta, where he noted that Vice President Kamala Harris was an HBCU student. His appearance, however, sparked peaceful protests on campus over his administration’s handling of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Despite the unrest, Biden highlighted the significant contributions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to American society. “I’ve got more Morehouse men in my Administration than Morehouse,” Biden quipped, noting that HBCUs have educated 70% of Black doctors and dentists and 80% of Black judges in the U.S.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries praised Biden’s efforts to advance school desegregation. “Under the leadership of President Biden and Education Secretary Cardona, we’ve made important progress toward school desegregation efforts across the nation, though we still have a long way to go,” Jeffries said. “Equal access to high-quality education should not be a partisan issue. It’s a problem we must confront together as Americans.”

The president’s recent speeches and meetings underscore his administration’s focus on combating the rising tide of right-wing extremism and protecting the civil rights advances of previous decades. “My predecessor and his MAGA friends are responsible for taking away other freedoms, from the freedom to vote to the freedom to choose,” Biden said. “But I’ve always believed the promise of America is big enough for everyone to succeed.”

Biden’s efforts come as he faces a challenging re-election campaign, with a need to galvanize the Black electorate, that was pivotal in his defeat of Donald Trump in 2020. His administration’s emphasis on defending civil rights and promoting equality aims to rekindle the support that proved crucial in his ascent to the presidency.

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