Biden delivers most significant speech yet on race, says silence on hate 'is complicity'

"There can be no realization of the American Dream without grappling with the original sin of slavery," Biden said.
Image: Joe Biden speaks at an anniversary memorial observance for the Birmingham Church bombing in Alabama on Sept. 15, 2019.
Joe Biden speaks at an anniversary memorial observance for the Birmingham Church bombing in Alabama on Sept. 15, 2019.Marvin Gentry / Reuters

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By Allan Smith and Mike Memoli

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday made his most expansive speech yet on race, calling on the nation to live up to its founding ideals and saying that silence on racism amounts to complicity.

"There can be no realization of the American Dream without grappling with the original sin of slavery," Biden told churchgoers in Alabama while delivering the keynote address at services marking the 56th anniversary of the deadly bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.

In what was at times a deeply personal address, Biden spoke of the losses he has faced in life to sympathize with the community in Birmingham as they remember four young girls killed the Birmingham attack. He spoke of how the domestic terror attack here “laid bare the lie that a child could be free in America while oppression’s long shadow darkened our cities and ruled our countryside."

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Biden highlighted prominent hate crimes of the past decade, including the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the 2015 mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, as proof that "violence does not live in the past."

"The domestic terrorism of white supremacy has been the antagonist of our highest ideals from before the founding of this country," Biden said. “Lynch mobs, arsonists, bomb makers, lone gunmen — and as we all now realize, this violence does not live in the past."

The former vice president said the U.S. has yet to live up to its promise of equality for all, and that any silence in the face of such hatred "is complicity." He repeated an assertion he made at the onset of his campaign that the country is "in a battle for the soul of America."

"Now hate is on the rise again, and we're at a defining moment again in American history," Biden said.

The former vice president talked about his own journey into public service inspired by the civil rights movement, and how the attack in Birmingham “helped us realize working on the fringes of the movement was not enough." He said he became a public defender and ultimately ran for office because of it and the response to the assassination of MLK.

Biden said he believed that, as racial violence inspired the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, Americans "are ready" to "take another step" in response to recent hate.

He said that while "those of us are white try, but we can never fully, fully understand" the struggle black Americans have faced, "we have to work to bring this country together."

The vice president, who served alongside the nation's first black president, enjoys strong support from black voters. But his speech comes as he himself has been scrutinized for his legislative record on busing and criminal justice and his past statements on racial issues.

This summer, Biden has come under criticism for June comments fundraiser about his past work with segregationist senators decades ago and, more recently, for an answer he delivered at Thursday's presidential debate in response to a question about reparations and the lasting effect of slavery. Biden responded in part that social workers are needed to "help parents deal with how to raise their children” because "they don't know quite what to do," suggesting solutions such as keeping a "record player" on at night so that young children can learn more words.