In a celebration commemorating 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Joe Biden on Monday once again condemned the scourge of white supremacy, a moral blight he once thought the country had moved past.
“I thought things had changed. I was literally able to talk Strom Thurmond into voting for the Civil Rights Act before he died, and I felt, well, maybe there’s real progress,” Biden said, invoking the name of the infamously segregationist former senator from South Carolina. “But it never dies. It juist hides under the rocks."
"Silence is complicity, and we’re not going to remain silent," the president pledged.
Biden’s remarks came as the White House hosted the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, marking 60 years since the organization was founded at the request of President John F. Kennedy, with a mission of combatting oppression during the civil rights movement.
The dread of racially motivated violence hung over the evening’s proceedings. On Saturday, a white, 21-year-old man — using a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle bearing swastikas — shot and killed three Black people who were shopping at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida. The gunman then fatally shot himself, and was found dead by police who had responded to the shooting, officials said.
According to Sheriff T.K. Waters, the shooter's parents found racist writings that he described as "quite frankly, the diary of a madman."
“White supremacy is a poison," the president said at Monday's event. "It’s been allowed to grow faster and faster in our communities, to the point where the U.S. intelligence community has determined the that domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy is the greatest terrorist threat we face in the homeland.
“All of us need to say as clearly and forcefully — as forcefully as we can — that hate will not prevail in America," the president added.
Biden made the connection between violent extremism to the hate speech that radicalizes extremists, including what he called addressing the “exploitation of the internet” as a recruiting tool.
“That’s going to be hard — it conflicts in many cases with the First Amendment,” he said, tying that fight to the White House’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism and his approvals of legislation intended to address federal hate crimes, including the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act — named for a 14 year old boy who was brutally killed in 1955 for speaking to a white woman — which he signed in March.
He also once again called for a ban against assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and pushed back against the rising trend in many conservative-led states to ban books and teach accounts of history that look past injustices driven against racial minorities. The president also boasted of his administration’s economic plans.
“We’re investing in all of America, all Americans, the entire nation’s future, and I would argue that our plan is working,” Biden said. “But there are those in America who are so consumed with the worst of our past with grievances and lies and hate and violence, that they're in opposition to almost everything. So we have to we must be unyielding, unyielding recognize that the great cause of America, which is giving everyone an equal chance, just everyone an equal chance.”
Before the ceremony, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with civil rights leaders and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family members on the anniversary of the March on Washington, including Rev. Al Sharpton.
“The vast majority have so much more in common than what separates us. Yet there are those who are intentionally trying to divide us as a nation,” Harris told White House reporters. “I believe each of us has a duty to not allow factions to sever our unity. Our diversity is our strength.”
Biden, in response to a reporter’s question, added that the way to prevent hate is by talking directly to Americans.
“I really think this is a critical time. We have groups, a significant minority, that I think they want to change the direction we’ve been working on so hard and making such significant progress for so long,” Biden said. “We can’t let that happen.”