Joe Biden delivered remarks Sunday from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, becoming the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday sermon from the historic church where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor until his assassination in 1968.
“You’ve been around for 136 years – I know I look like it, but I haven’t,” Biden joked, calling King one of “my only political heroes” since entering public service.
In remarks from the pulpit, the president referred to the current moment in American history as “the time of choosing.”
“Are we a people who choose democracy over autocracy? You couldn’t ask that question 15 years ago, right? You would’ve thought democracy was settled – not for African Americans, but democracy as an institutional structure was settled. But it’s not, it’s not,” he said.
“We have to choose a community over chaos. Are we the people … going to choose love over hate? These are the vital questions of our time, and the reason why I’m here as your president, I believe. Dr. King’s life and legacy show us the way, and we should pay attention,” Biden said.
He offered praise for King and his legacy, noting that the civil rights pioneer “was born in a nation where segregation was a tragic fact of life.”
Biden’s visit came amid a steady drip of revelations tied to his handling of classified documents after his time as vice president. The White House has faced increasing criticism for its lack of transparency with the public over the finding of classified material at Biden’s home and his former private office. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to take over the investigation into the classified documents found at the two locations connected to Biden.
Biden was invited to speak Sunday by the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, on what would have been King’s 94th birthday. Warnock was recently elected to a full six-year term following an election in which he distanced himself from Biden on the campaign trail in Georgia, where polling showed a majority of voters disapproved of the president’s job performance.
At the church, Biden spoke about King’s legacy and a number of issues, including civil and voting rights.
“He had every reason to believe, as others in his generation did, that history had already been written, that the division be America’s destiny – but he rejected that outcome,” Biden said. “So often, when people hear about Dr. King, people think his ministry and the movement were most about the epic struggle for civil rights and voting rights. But we do well to remember that his mission was something even deeper – it was spiritual. It was moral.”
The speech also came as the president is set to make a decision about his political future with his advisers readying plans for a possible reelection bid. Biden narrowly flipped Georgia in 2020, buoyed by support from Black voters, and the state could prove critical in next year’s presidential campaign.
Ahead of Biden’s trip to Georgia, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the White House senior adviser for public engagement, and former mayor of Atlanta, called the visit “an inflection point,” as the president’s voting rights agenda remains stalled in Congress.
“If you’ve come through the East Wing, you’ve seen the pictures of Dr. King meeting with Lyndon Johnson, meeting with other civil rights leaders, hashing out voting rights in the White House – and so the fact that we are still here talking about this in 2023, I think really speaks to the fact that we need action, we need that action from Congress,” Bottoms said.
“The President has done and will continue to do all that he can do in his executive powers, but there’s only so much that he can do. We need Congress to act,” she added.
A Democratic-controlled House passed a voting rights bill in 2021, but attempts by Senate Democrats to change filibuster rules to pass the legislation were unsuccessful amid opposition from moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema has since become an independent, while continuing to caucus with Democrats, and Republicans won control of the House following the November midterm elections, further dashing hopes of finding compromise on voting rights.
Bottoms defended the administration’s handling of the voting rights issue, telling reporters Friday that the Biden White House has “done all that we can do from the executive branch,” but if there were additional steps that would further the issue, “we welcome these suggestions.”
While in Atlanta, Biden was expected to meet with members of the King family and civil rights organizations, the White House said.
King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 at age 39.
On Monday, when the nation honors King on his eponymous holiday, Biden will deliver the keynote address during the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast in Washington, DC, on the invitation of Rev. Al Sharpton.
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.