Civil rights leaders, who met with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House Thursday, described the meeting as "the most sober conversation that we could possibly have as civil rights leaders."
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who serves as president of the National Urban League, warned of “the state of emergency that this country faces when it comes to democracy.”
“Democracy is under vigorous vicious and sinister attack, beginning with the events of January 6 at the Capitol, and cascading like a tsunami through state legislatures across the nation that have a singular intent, which is to suppress deny and thwart the votes of Black people, brown people, young people, people who are disabled, and many other Americans live with great disadvantage in this country,” Morial said.
“We have met with numerous members of Congress, including Senator [Joe] Manchin, including with a number of Republican members of the United States Senate, we have, and we will not leave any stone unturned to save American democracy,” Morial said, adding the group “will speak with anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances, and we will take any actions, nonviolent, peaceful, and intelligent, to protect American democracy.”
Morial called efforts to curb voting rights “an attack on the very fundamental values that undergird this country,” and “an effort to impose a system of American apartheid.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said their White House meeting, which went longer than its scheduled hourlong window, was “candid” and “no holds barred.”
He called the recent Supreme Court decision on voting rights “a blow of indescribable impact to the ability of having the right to vote, particularly to Black people and people of color.”
“And it was our task to tell the President and vice president that, not only do we need the White House to do all it can, that we are going to build a movement around this country to resist that,” Sharpton said. “What is clearly a move to try and disenfranchise people of color from voting. The methodical way this has been laid out in these state legislatures and in their state legislation is geared toward robbing us of the vote.”
Sharpton underscored to the administration that the effort to combat voter disenfranchisement needs to come from the ground up, not necessarily from the White House down. He also said the group needs to work in partnership with the White House on gun violence.
“And that the President and vice president need to know that there needs to be – their understanding that a movement from the ground up is starting to be the only way that we can preserve our right to vote. HR 1 or Senate bill 1 and the John Lewis bill is mandatory, but at the same time, if we don’t put the street heat on it will not happen. So, we informed them, and they listened very patiently,” Sharpton said. “They asked questions. But we informed them that this is going to come, not from the White House down but from our houses up. Because this is our ability to preserve the right to vote. We also talked and mentioned about the need for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. I told the President that there is growing numbers of people in all communities that are concerned about what is going on with policing.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told reporters she conveyed “the history of civil rights legislation in this country, of the Supreme Court's role in often eroding, civil rights statutes, dating back to the 19th century, dating back to the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the civil rights cases dating back to Plessy versus Ferguson, dating back to Mobile versus Bolton, the voting rights case in 1980 that Congress had to overturn in 1982 with the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.”
Ifill blasted efforts to curtail voting rights in Florida, Texas, and Georgia as “eroding the tools that we have in our hands at the state level by passing these voter suppression laws,” telling reporters, “What we see, what we emphasized to the President, is that our backs are against the wall.”
“This is the moment, there is no more time, 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, and that was one of the encouraging things about this conversation — was that the President understands us to be in a moment of peril in terms of our democracy,” Ifill said.
Pressed by reporters, the leaders agreed they’d be willing to also meet with Republican lawmakers to discuss their concerns.
“If Mitch McConnell will sit down with the eight of us, we’ll sit down with Mitch McConnell,” Morial said, adding, “Mitch McConnell has shared with me on numerous occasions the pride he felt that you know this standing as an intern in the Capitol when the Civil Rights Act was being signed, and we're prepared to meet with anyone at any time to discuss this,” prompting Sharpton to chime in, “We have already talked to several Republicans, and as Marc said, we’ll meet with anybody, but that will not stop the action.”
Ifill added that in conversations with Republican Sen. Tim Scott, she believes Scott “still doesn't fully understand what the Civil Rights position is at this moment, about how serious we are about accountability and why, and what the people who were out in this country last year by the millions and around the world want — what those people want is a real transformative change.”
The group balked at the suggestion from one reporter that they looked somber following their meeting with Biden and Harris.
“I just really, really want to be clear, and this is part of what I think it's critical for you to understand when we talk about the emergency that we're in, we're talking about the very future of the full citizenship and dignity of black people in this country,” Ifill told reporters. “It is the most sober conversation that we could possibly have as civil rights leaders, we are not going to come out happy-go-lucky out of any meeting where that is on the line. So, we come out of this meeting gratified first of all that the President invited us to talk about this issue. We're gratified that he recognizes the nature of the emergency, but we have no illusions about what we are up against.