While Black civil rights leaders lauded President Joe Biden for taking a strong stance against voter suppression in his speech Tuesday, they said the president still fell short of meeting their demand to discuss the need to eliminate or reform the filibuster.
During his address, Biden called on Congress to pass both the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement act to block the nationwide assault on voting rights.
However, Biden did not mention the need to end the filibuster, which has made it impossible for Democrats to move forward with voting rights legislation because their slim majority in the Senate isn’t enough to overcome GOP opposition.
“I would have liked to have heard him to say process should not be more important than people,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation. “And process should not get in the way of the right to vote in this country.”
Still, Campbell said Biden’s speech was “pretty strong” overall.
“What I liked was the fight in him, he came strong and laid out how we got here,” Campbell said.
Biden’s speech was criticized by the founders of Black Voters Matter, which led a bus tour across the country last month to educate the public about voting, lobby for equal voting access and empower people to join their efforts.
“Good speech, so what’s the strategy? #EndTheFilibusterNow,” Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown tweeted.
Cliff Albright, also co-founder of Black Voters Matter, called Biden’s speech an “epic fail.”
“It’s like listening to a doctor describe in the starkest terms how dire your illness is, and then saying “good luck with that” as he escorts you out the office,” Albright tweeted.
Biden has faced increasing pressure from Black leaders to take an aggressive stance on Congress eliminating the filibuster and passing federal legislation that would protect voters.
Black leaders say Biden has not acted swiftly enough on voting rights as a growing number of states pass laws that restrict voting access. His address in Philadelphia came less than a week after the President met with the leaders of several civil rights organizations at the White House.
The group demanded that Biden go into communities and speak about what he was doing to protect voting rights, said Campbell, who attended the meeting.
The leaders also urged the Biden administration to do more to push Congress to approve the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Black voters, Campbell said, put Biden in office with the expectation that he would rally against GOP efforts to suppress their votes.
“We believe this is a state of emergency,” Campbell said. “Because we don’t have a strong voting rights act to push back on some of this, then we are looking at regression… and with African Americans, we have always had to have federal intervention.”
According to the White House, Biden’s speech Tuesday will include “remarks on actions to protect the sacred, constitutional right to vote.”
Passing voting rights legislation has been an uphill battle for Democrats because of the filibuster, which means their slim majority in the Senate isn’t enough to overcome GOP opposition. Moderate Democrats have opposed major changes to the rules, making the future of new voting laws unclear. Biden has also stopped short of supporting elimination of the filibuster but has expressed openness to making the practice harder to execute.
Albright said there is no path to voting rights that does not require modifying or ending the filibuster.
Biden, he said, has the power to influence lawmakers and that it would be an “epic fail” if the President doesn’t take a stand against the filibuster in his speech.
“The President’s hands are never tied,” Albright said.
Albright said voting rights activists are hoping to hear Biden discuss what his administration will do moving forward to protect the right to vote.
“We want to hear an aggressive plan on how the White House is going to prioritize this including what they are going to be doing on a daily basis,” Albright said. “These are historic levels of voter suppression and this White House has not proven itself to be up for the task.”
Some civil rights activists say they hope Biden’s support for voting rights goes beyond his speech in Philadelphia today.
Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said during a press event Monday outside the Supreme Court that he wants to see the president traveling the country to speak out about the issue.
“Go to Texas, do a major speech and meet with activists and the moral leaders of all races and colors and creeds on the ground,” Barber said. “Then go to Arizona, go to West Virginia and make the case for the ending of the filibuster to pass these four things, three things, the For The People Act, the expansion of the Voting Rights Act, and the minimum wage of $15.”
Last month, Barber was arrested along with Rev. Jesse Jackson during a Capitol Hill protest over voting rights and the filibuster’s abolition. The faith leaders have demanded that lawmakers at the state and federal level halt efforts to enact bills that restrict voting access and support the For the People Act, a signature voting and election bill that Democrats had pitched to counter state-level efforts.
“When you start rolling back voter registration, rolling back early voting, undermining mail in balloting, putting limits on people even being able to get water, doing racist gerrymandering, class-based gerrymandering, you hurt Black people, you hurt White people, you hurt Asians, Natives, Latinos, young people and the disabled,” Barber told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last month.
Activists have said they are running out of options to stop state lawmakers from passing laws that suppress voters and that Biden’s advocacy is crucial.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who attended the meeting with Biden last week, said leaders have “emphasized to the President that our backs are against the wall.”
“This is the moment. There is no more time,” Ifill said. “We must have legislation. We must have the President use his voice, use his influence, use his power, and use what he clearly understands about this moment.”