Oct 21, 2021
Joe Biden Speech Transcript: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
President Joe Biden gave a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on October 21, 2021. Read the transcript of the speech here.
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President Joe Biden: (00:02)
Thank you, Kamala. Thank you all so very much. Mr. President. Harry, thank you for your stewardship. Here in the heart of the Capital of the United States of America, the tensions and the heat of the nation are vividly on display. Dr. King stands determined and brave, looking out at the promised land. Across the tidal basin stands another giant of our history, Thomas Jefferson, whose words declared the very idea of America, that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. We’re all deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. To state the obvious, and no audience knows it better than this one, we’ve never lived up to that idea, but we’ve never walked away from it fully. We’ve never walked away. In his sermon to the March in Washington, Dr. King called on all America to live up to the full meaning and promise of our Declaration of Independence.
President Joe Biden: (01:27)
And so I stand here in perpetuity, in timely and timeless conversation that inspires us and challenges us, reminds us how far we’ve come, where we need to go, and how much longer the journey is. It’s a conversation that shapes our days and that we must carry forward. Madam Vice President, Madam Speaker, Chair of the Black Caucus PD, congressional black caucus members, the moral foundation, leaders of faith and community, distinguished guests, from here, we see the ongoing push and pull between progress and struggle over the self-evident truths of our democracy. And in our nation, we now face an inflection point and the battle literal for the soul of America. And it’s up to us together to choose who we want to be and what we want to be. I know the progress does not come fast enough. It never has. And the process of governing is frustrating and sometimes disparaging. But I also know what’s possible if we keep the pressure up, if we never give up, if we keep the faith.
President Joe Biden: (02:56)
We’re at an inflection point. I know I’ve maybe overused that phrase, but it is an inflection point in American history, and delivering on economic justice. Or was the dignity of work that Dr. King was in Memphis on that fateful day in April, helping sanitation workers, not only for better pay and safer conditions, but to be granted more dignity as human beings. In our time, it’s about recognizing that for much too long. We’ve allowed a narrow and cramped view of the promise of America, a view that America’s a zero sum game, particularly of the recent past. If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. And maybe worst of all, if I can hold you down, I lift myself up, instead of what it should be,. And it’s just self-evident. If you do well, we all do well. That’s keeping the promise of America. I’ve never seen a time when working folks did well that the wealthy didn’t do very well.
President Joe Biden: (04:09)
Look, it’s the core of our administration’s economic vision and it’s a fundamental paradigm shift for this nation. For the first time in a couple generations, we’re going to be investing in working families, putting them first and helping them get ahead, rather than the wealthy and the biggest and most powerful people out there. We’re investing in Black families with rescue checks and tax cuts that reduce Black poverty by 34%, Black child poverty by more than 50%, this year. And we’re aggressively with the leadership of some of the people I’m looking at right now, combating housing discrimination to create a generation of wealth. How did every other person make it the middle class from a working class circumstance, just like my dad did? Build equity in a house. Granted, it was small. Granted, it wasn’t much, but it was enough to build a little equity. We’ll use the federal government’s purchasing power to unlock billions of dollars in new opportunities of minority owned small businesses and access to government contracts.
President Joe Biden: (05:21)
Is there any doubt that providing more people with just a little more breathing room to take care of their families, generate a little bit of wealth that they can pass on to their children, and create jobs in their communities would uplift the entire country, all the country, everyone? And as the economy recovers, we are determined and focused on rebuilding it over the long run. No one should have to hold their breath as they cross a rundown bridge to determine whether it’s safe enough, or a dangerous intersection in their hometown. A nation, every American, every child should be able to turn on a faucet and drink water that’s not contaminated by lead or anything else. As a nation, everyone should have access to affordable high speed internet. Gone the days when you have to pull up to a McDonald’s and sit in a parking lot with your child to do their homework when there’s virtual learning going on.
President Joe Biden: (06:25)
Dr. King said, “Of all the forms of inequity, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and most inhumane.” This is a once in a century pandemic that’s hit this country hard, and especially the African American community. It’s like you’ve all lost someone to the virus or know someone who has lost a loved one. One in 600 Black Americans have died from COVID-19, and it’s been reported that Black children more than twice as likely as white children to have lost a parent or a caregiver to COVID-19, to have to experience the trauma and loss. Many of my colleagues in the Congress are working on what we have to now work on even more fervently, and that is mental health care, helping people through the difficult periods we have.
President Joe Biden: (07:17)
It’s been devastating, but we can find purpose in pain. We can find purpose in this pain. Equity is the center of my administration’s COVID-19 response. The vaccination rates among Black adults is now essentially on par with white adults. The midst of this pandemic, we’re building an Affordable Care Act to extend coverage, to lower healthcare costs for millions of Black families. We’re also working to lower prescription drug costs by giving Medicare the power to negotiate lower prices. And how do you know the plan will work? Because the drug companies are spending millions od bucks to try to stop it. That’s how you know. Together, we’re making healthcare a right, not a privilege in this nation. And for the millions, the millions of you who feel financially squeezed in raising a child while caring for an aging parent, a so-called sandwich generation, want to elder care affordable accessible, so your aging loved ones can live with greater independence and dignity. We also want to make sure childcare costs for most families are cut at least in half.
President Joe Biden: (08:32)
No working family, if we get what you all are helping me get done, no working family in America will pay more than 7% of their income on childcare for any child under five. Want to give raises and millions of care workers and home workers so they can increase their capacity, increase their knowledge, increase their opportunities. Health workers and childcare workers are disproportionately women, women of color and immigrants, workers, like the ones Dr. King stood for when he marched and gave his life. Look, folks, just imagine, instead of consigning millions of our children to under-resourced schools, we gave every single child in America access to an education at age three and age four, quality preschool. We could afford to do this. We can’t afford not to do it. And we do know no matter what the background or circumstance a child comes from, when given that opportunity, they have a better than 58% chance to make it all the way through 12 years without getting themselves in trouble, and maybe going beyond that. This will change lives forever.
President Joe Biden: (09:48)
So will historic investments in higher education. Significantly increasing Pell grants to help millions of black students in lower income families attend community colleges and four year schools. I’ll tell you, let me be clear, in the shadow of the Morehouse men… I hear a lot about that guys. And with the Howard alumni, I keep making the case of excuses at point of personal privilege, [inaudible 00:10:24] Senate. The best HBCU in the country is Delaware State. That’s where I got started. Come on. But here’s what we’ve done. In addition to putting the president of Delaware State, he used to work for, Doctor, in charge of all of this, we’re committed to nearly $5 billion this year in historic investments with more historically Black colleges, universities to make every single student, give him a shot at the good paying jobs. And you all know what I mean. But for anybody watching this, one of the problems is Black students and collegers used to have every single capability any other student does.
President Joe Biden: (11:07)
But guess what? Because they don’t have great endowments, they can’t compete for those government contracts are out there that the big schools are able to go out and get. Cyber security, for example, starting salary is 100, 125,000 bucks, but you don’t get to get that contract unless you have laboratories, unless you have the facilities you can in fact train on. We also know this about the promise of America. Economic injustice also means delivering environmental justice to communities on fence line communities, dividing homes and toxic areas. My state has one of the highest cancer rates in the history in America, because I lived in a fence line community called Claymont, Delaware. We used to get up in the morning, not a joke, when I get driven to the little school, I went up the street, turned on the windshield wiper in the fall of the first frost, and literally be an oil slick in the window. Not a joke. An oil slick in the window.
President Joe Biden: (12:07)
That’s why an awful lot of us, including me, have bronchial asthma. It means reducing pollution so our children can develop and avoid these consequences. Every one of you have an alley in your state. We call a cancer alley in our state going down Route 13. Look, it means building up our resilience through the climate crisis for the next extreme weather events. And these have been of biblical proportions, biblical proportions. 178 mile top winds in the hurricane down in Louisiana, more people dying in Queens in their basements because 20 inches of rain, they flooded and couldn’t get out of their basements. They drowned. Superstorms, droughts, wildfire, hurricanes. This is the for America, urban and rural and all across America, not just for any one area. And as we fight for economic justice to fulfill the promise of America for all Americans, the work continues on delivering equal justice under the law.
President Joe Biden: (13:07)
Look, I know the frustration we all feel, that more than one year after George Floyd’s murder and the conviction of his murderer about six months ago, meaningful police reform in George’s name is still not past Congress. I remember many times meeting with little daughter, and she’d say to me, “My daddy’s changing history. He’s going to change history.” But we haven’t fulfilled that yet. I understand, you got to keep fighting. Let me be clear though, we’re going to continue to fight for real police reform legislation. And the fight’s not anywhere near over. Despite Republican instruction, my administration is active. We’ve already announced changes in the federal law enforcement policies, a ban on choke holds, restriction on no knock warrants, requirements that federal agents wear and activate body cameras, ending Department of Justice use of private prisons, rescinding the previous administration’s guidance to US attorneys to require the harshest of penalties.
President Joe Biden: (14:05)
The Justice Department has open a pattern of practice investigation of systematic police misconduct and police departments in Phoenix, Louisville, and Minneapolis. Just because we can’t get it done in the states, we are not standing back, but we have much more to do. And these important steps, my administration also wants to advance some meaningful police reform that includes additional executive actions that live up to America’s promise of equal justice under the law. Our work continues to create a safer and stronger communities in critical ways. With my American Rescue Plan, and thank you and the Congress for supporting it, everybody forgets that was $1.9 trillion. We got a heck of a lot done with that, that it did so well, people don’t even know where it came from. Oh, I’m serious. Think about it. What’d you do for me lately? Well, we had $1.9 billion we took care of.
President Joe Biden: (14:59)
Well, we made historic investments in community policing and violence intervention programs. And we’re shown to reduce some of these programs reduce violence by 60%. We’re expanding summer programs and job opportunities and service and support to keep young people safe and out of trouble, helping formally incarcerated people successfully re-enter their communities. In the past, you get 25 bucks and a bus ticket. You go back right into the bridge you just were there before. You should have access to Pell grants. You should have access to the housing. You should have access to all the things. You paid your price, and we shouldn’t put you back in the spot where you have no options.
President Joe Biden: (15:40)
We’re also working to stem the flow of firearms from rogue gun dealers to curb the epidemic of gun violence. I know I get criticized for being the guy who passed this assault weapons ban. I’m proud of having passed the assault weapons ban. But here’s the deal. We heard Dr. King paraphrase Micah. He said, “Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the south who will do justly and love mercy.” Well, in just nine months, we’ve appointed more Black women to circuit courts and more former public defenders of events than any administration in all of American history, because of you. We’re going to change it.
President Joe Biden: (16:24)
We did it in a record time and we’re just getting started because all of you in the audience here, you’ve been the engine behind all of this. But we also know this. To make real the full promise America, we have to protect that fundamental right, the right to vote, the sacred right to vote. It’s democracy’s threshold liberty. With it, anything’s possible. Without it, nothing is. Today, the right to vote and the rule of all are under unrelenting assault from Republican governors, attorney’s general, secretary of state, state legislators, and they’re following my predecessor, the last president, into a deep, deep black hole and abyss. No, I really mean it. Think about it. This is what got me involved in civil rights as a kid when I was 26 years old. I loved reading about how Biden knew he was going to run for president. Hell, I didn’t know I was even going to be able to run for the county council. I didn’t even want to.
President Joe Biden: (17:25)
But look, this struggle is no longer just over who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible people to vote. It’s about who gets to count the votes, whether they should count at all. Jim Crow in the 21st century is now a sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion. My fellow Americans, I thought at one point that I had been able to do something good as chairman of the judiciary committee. I was able to get every member of the committee, including some of the most conservative members that ever served, clearly who had racist backgrounds, to vote to extend the Voting Right Act for 25 years. I thought, “Whoa.” One of the proudest things I ever did as a Senator.
President Joe Biden: (18:16)
But guess what? This means that some state legislatures want to make it harder for you to vote. And if you do vote, they want to be able to tell you whether or not your vote counts. That’s not happened before. They want the ability to reject the final vote and ignore the will of the people, if they’re preferred candidate, Black or white or Asian or Latino, doesn’t matter, if that their candidate doesn’t win. And they’re targeting not just voters of color, as I said, but every voter who doesn’t vote the way they want. I have to admit to you, have been as a Senator my whole 36 year career involved in as I’ve worked with a lot of folks out here in civil rights issues, I thought, “Man, you can’t turn this back. I thought you could defeat hate. I thought we could actually defeat hate.”
President Joe Biden: (19:13)
But the most un-American thing that any of us can imagine, the most undemocratic and the most unpatriotic, and yet sadly not unprecedented, time and again, we’ve [inaudible 00:19:23] the threats to the right to vote and free and fair elections come to fruition. Each time, we fought back, and we’ve got to continue to fight back today. I want to thank Martin Luther King III for leading marches on voting rights during the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28th. The vice president and I and our colleagues here have spent our careers doing this work. It’s central to our administration. On the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I directed each and every federal to promote access to voting from each agency heeding that call.
President Joe Biden: (19:59)
For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs, I asked them to make it easier for veterans and their families to register and to vote, at VA Facilities, so be open. In addition, the US Department of Justice has double the voting rights enforcement staff. We got a long way to go though. It’s using authorities to challenge the onslaught of state laws, undermining voting rights, whether in older new ways.
President Joe Biden: (20:26)
To something like 20% or half the Republicans, I am not your president. Donald Trump is still your president. As we Catholics say, “Oh my God.” But look, the focus is going to remain on discrimination and racial discriminatory laws, Georgia’s various new anti-voting laws. And let’s be clear about Georgia, Dr. King’s home state and the home state of someone who has literally stood in his shoes. I think some of you guys knew this next line was coming. That’s why you had the jets come up. Stood in his shoes as a Morehouse man. That’s what I keep getting from Cedric. Oh, anyway. And as a preacher in the pulpit of Ebeneezer.
President Joe Biden: (21:29)
United States Senator Rafael Warnock, the first Black Senator in Georgia’s history. Senator Warnock won his election in the battle of ideas. He earned the trust and confidence of a broad coalition of voters in Georgia. In response of Republicans of Georgia, what was it? It’s not try winning on the merits and ideas. It’s by changing the rules to make it harder for people to vote, deny the franchise. The Vice President has been leading our administration’s efforts and we’ve supported Democrats pressing to enact critical voting rights bills since day one of this administration, making sure we have unanimous support. But each and every time, the Senate Republicans block it by refusing even to talk about it. They’re afraid to even just debate the bills in the US Senate, as they did again yesterday, even on a bill that includes provisions that they’ve traditionally supported. It’s unfair, it’s unconscionable, and it’s un-American.
President Joe Biden: (22:26)
And this battle’s far from over. The door has not been closed. John Lewis Voting Right Act will soon come up for a vote, named after our dear friend we still miss dearly, but whose voice we hear every day in our hearts and our conscience. It’s a law that helped lead the reauthorization, as I said, for 25 years that I served in the Senate Judiciary Committee expanding the Voting Rights Act, traditionally received bipartisan support. We have to keep up the fight and get it done. And I know the moment we’re in. You know the moment we’re in. I know the stakes. You know the stakes. This is far from over.
President Joe Biden: (23:08)
And finally, we’re confronting the stains of what remains the deep stain in the soul of the nation, hate and white supremacy. There’s a tough through line of subjugation with slave people from our earliest days to the reigns of radicalized terror, the KKK, to Dr. King being assassinated. And though that that line continues to be the torches emerging from dark shadows in Charlottesville, carrying out Nazi banners and chanting antisemitic bile and Ku Klux Klan flags, and the violent, deadly insurrection on the Capitol nine months ago, it was about white supremacy in my view. The rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic and the rise of antisemitism here in America and around the world. The through line is that never goes away. In all the years I’ve been involved, I thought once we got through it, it would go away. But it doesn’t. It only hides. It only hides until some seeming legitimate person breathes some oxygen under the rocks where they’re hiding and gives us some breath.
President Joe Biden: (24:30)
I’ve said it before, and all my colleagues here know it. According to the United States Intelligence Community, domestic terrorism from white supremacists is the most lethal terrorist threat in the Homeland. To that end, our administration is carrying out the first ever comprehensive effort to tackle the threat posed by domestic terrorism, including white supremacy. We’re doing so by taking action and reduce online radicalism and recruitment to violence. We’re also disrupting networks that inspire violence and domestic terrorists by providing resources to communities to build resilience. We cannot and must not give hate any safe harbor, any safe harbor. My fellow Americans, standing here, I’m reminded of the goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King led, and I quote. He said his goal was to, “Redeem the soul of America.” That’s what’s at stake here, the soul of America.
President Joe Biden: (25:36)
And we know that it’s not the work of a single day or a single administration, or even a single generation. But here we stand with Dr. King. To show out of struggle, there’s progress. Out of despair, there’s hope. From the promise of equality and opportunity of jobs, justice, and freedom, we see Black excellence, American excellence, Black history as American history, and a defining source of the might of this nation. That’s why we’re here today, to renew our own courage, in the shadow and the light, on the shoulders of Dr. King, Curtis Scott King, and all those known and unknown who gave their whole souls to this work, the courage to confront wrong and to try to do right, the courage to heal the broken places of the nation, the courage to see America whole, to acknowledge where we fall short, to devote ourselves with the perfection of the union that we love and we must protect.
President Joe Biden: (26:43)
Fo, if we can summon the courage to do these things, we’ll have done our duty, honored our commitments, brought the dream of Dr. King just a little bit of closer to reality. It’s the highest of callings. It’s the most sacred of charges. And it’s what, with the help of God, we can do now. So let’s go forth from this sacred place, tumbling in turmoil with hope and promise of a nation always seeking, always thriving, always keeping the faith. Because, folks, I know my colleagues in the Senate used to always kid me for quoting Irish poets on the floor. They thought I did it because I was Irish. It’s not the reason. They’re just the best poets in the world. And I believe this to be true. There’s a line from a poem of The Cure of Troy, and says, “Once in a lifetime, that tidal wave of justice rises up and hope and history rhyme.” It’s not the whole quote. I won’t bore you at all, but hope and history rhyme.
President Joe Biden: (27:58)
I believe the American people, the vast majority are with us. I think they see much more clearly what you’ve all been fighting for your whole life now. It’s in stark relief. The bad news is we had a president who appealed to the prejudice. The good news is that he ripped the bandaid off, made it absolutely clear what’s at stake. And I think the American people will follow us. But guess what? Whether they will or not, we have no choice. We have to continue to fight. God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.