President Biden’s fiery State of the Union addresses voting rights, banned books and HBCUs

On the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Joe Biden channeled the civil rights activists, one of whom sat in the first lady’s box, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to force America to do right by all of its citizens.

He was defiant declaring, “I will not bow down,” referring to the war in Ukraine. Addressing Jan. 6 insurrectionists, he was patriotic, bellowing, “You can’t love your country only when you win.” And name checking one of the most well-known bridge marchers, he was demanding: “It is time to do more than talk. Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”

With a tone of strong optimism Biden pronounced, ”the state of our union is strong and getting stronger.” What quickly ensued was a chant accompanied by a standing ovation of mostly democrats of “Four more years!” 

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President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Washington. Seated at left is Vice President Kamala Harris and at right is House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. (Photo by Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

In contrast to the GOP narrative of a too old, too sleepy, too-weak-to-lead 81-year-old president, Biden was often fierce, fast and forceful as he addressed abortion rights, the IVF ruling in Alabama, banned books and the attempts to eradicate Black history. His declarations were repeatedly met with applause, primarily from Democratic congressional members. That support in the Capitol continued at the White House, reportedly celebrated into the early morning.

The “clap in” for President Biden was said to be resounding when he returned to the White House following the State of the Union Address. His staff lined a corridor to receive Biden with welcoming applause for what they described as a victorious speech. The Bidens were said to have stayed up until early morning celebrating after an extended stay at the capitol. 

White House sources confirmed the administration met with civil rights leaders in the lead up to Biden’s address. Those leaders talked with speech writers to contribute to the overall themes for Black, Latino and Asian American communities. And notable Black guests attended the speech in the U.S. House of Representatives at the request of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Bidens.

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Darryl George, the Texas student kicked out of school for his hairstyle, was the guest of the Congressional Black Caucus. Democratic Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents George’s district, said prohibiting George from attending school because of the length of his locs should not have been condoned and is racist. The CBC is rallying around George and his mother to take his case to the Department of Justice and Education to seek a remedy.

In attendance in the first lady’s box was Bettie Mae Fikes of Selma, Alabama. Fikes is known for her rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” on Bloody Sunday. Joining her was fellow Alabamian Latorya Beasley of Birmingham. According to the White House, Beasley and her husband had their first child through in vitro fertilization in 2022 and were in the process of expanding their family when her embryo transfer was abruptly canceled as a result of the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision. 

In discussing domestic policy, the president referenced the Alabama IVF controversy, in which that state’s Supreme Court has ruled that embryos produced via in vitro fertilization are children. Beasley’s presence highlighted the issue that has often left millions of Black women out of the conversation. For the Black community, whose salaries are often not equal to white Americans, expanding their families is a costly socio-economic issue with a price tag that can exceed $20,000 for each IVF attempt. Additionally, Black women are disproportionately afflicted with fibroids, which can affect fertility.

Beyond Beasley’s attendance, Biden amplified his commitment to reproductive freedom and women’s health care with a vow. “I will restore Roe v. Wade,” he promised during the domestic portion of his 6,500-word speech.

State of the Union, Latorya Beasley,
In the second row, Latorya Beasley of Birmingham, Ala., stands to the right of first lady Jill Biden as President Joe Biden speaks during the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Washington. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Addressing another domestic issue, this time related to education, Biden said, “Banning books is wrong. Instead of erasing history, make history.”

In assessing the speech, California Democratic U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler said, “Honoring John Lewis, recognizing the sacrifices of Bloody Sunday, historic investment in HBCUs, Black entrepreneurship, lowest ever Black unemployment, reducing college debt, calling for the passage of voting rights legislation, President Biden, while he acknowledged there is more to do, made clear that he is listening the voices of Black Americans and is working hard to move our community and our country forward.”

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President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address on the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, showcasing his defiance, patriotism, and demands for action on various issues. Despite GOP criticism, Biden was forceful in addressing abortion rights, education, and the attempts to erase Black history. He received overwhelming support from Democratic congressional members and White House staff who celebrated his speech into the early morning. The administration worked closely with civil rights leaders to include themes for Black, Latino, and Asian American communities. Notable Black guests, including Texas student Darryl George and Bettie Mae Fikes, were present at the address. Biden also highlighted the Alabama IVF controversy, promising to restore Roe v. Wade and addressing the challenges faced by Black women in expanding their families. Overall, Biden’s speech emphasized his commitment to listening to the voices of Black Americans and advancing the community and the country.

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