President Biden on Friday struck an angry and passionate tone when he discussed hate and racism in America, calling on graduates from South Carolina State University to meet the moment and lead.
“What I didn’t realize is you can defeat hate, but you can’t eliminate it. It just slides back under a rock and when given oxygen by political leaders, it comes out ugly and mean as it was before. We can’t give it any oxygen, we have to step on it, we have to respond to it, it’s not who we are,” Biden said in remarks at the university’s 2021 fall commencement ceremony.
“We can not, we must not, give hate a safe harbor,” he said.
He compared members of the university’s class of 2021 to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and others in the civil rights movement in 1961. Clyburn graduated from South Carolina State, a historically Black college or university (HBCU), in 1961 but didn’t attend his ceremony, so he marched with the graduates on Friday.
“In 1961, they were you. Now in 2021, you are them,” Biden said. “You’re part of the most gifted, tolerate, talented, you’re the single best-educated generation in all of American history, but with that comes as a hell of an obligation.”
Biden said that the class of 2021 is graduating at an inflection point in American history, echoing a term he’s used many times before to mark this moment.
“Few classes, every once in a few generations, enter at a point in American history where it actually has a chance to change the trajectory of the country,” he said. “You face that inflection point today and I’m confident you’ll meet the moment. You’re ready because you’re part of a proud and sacred tradition, an HBCU tradition, more than 180 years of excellence.”
Raising his voice at the podium, the president spoke about the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
He said other heads of state have asked him if the U.S. is “going to be alright” following the insurrection.
“What about democracy in America? Did you ever think you’d be asked that question by another leader?” he said, yelling at the podium. “Folks, this is a troublesome time, but it’s a significant opportunity.”
He delivered a direct criticism of former President Trump’s now-infamous comments following the deadly Virginia rally in 2017 that there were fine people on “both sides” in Charlottesville.
“The guy who had this job before, when asked what he thought about it, said well, there’s some very good people there,” Biden said. “Hell very good people. They’re racists, they’re fascists. And folks, that was four years ago. I never thought I’d see that in my career.”
Biden touted his administration’s work toward police reform and voting rights protection, calling on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
“I got started in politics because of the civil rights movement,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like the unrelenting assault on the right to vote, never.”
He recalled securing a 25-year extension to the Voting Rights Act when former Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a post Biden would later hold.
“I thought we’re finally, finally, finally beginning to move. But this new sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion is un-American, its undemocratic and sadly, it is unprecedented since reconstruction,” he said.
Senate Democrats on Thursday joined a virtual call with Biden, during which the president encouraged them to pass voting rights legislation. The Senate is likely to adjourn for the year without a deal on how to move forward on a voting rights bill.
Biden on Friday said there is unanimous support from Democrats in the Senate on voting rights and blamed Republicans for the lack of action.
“Each and every time it gets brought up, the other team blocks the ability to even start to discuss it. That other team, it used to be called the Republican Party,” he said. “But this battle’s not over. We must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We must. We’re going to keep up the fight until we get it done and you’re going to keep up the fight and we need your help, badly.”
The president also touted HBCU graduates in his administration, including Vice President Harris, a graduate of Howard University, and Environmental Protection Administrator Michael Regan, a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University.
“Graduates, I’m here to congratulate you but I’m also here to let you know that your country — and this is not hyperbole — is counting on you. Counting on you to change, to turn the dial at a moment we have a chance to do it,” Biden said.
Clyburn, who had been invited to give the commencement address on Friday and invited Biden to take his place, quipped that the president immediately accepted the invitation.
The South Carolina Democrat is considered to have played a huge role in Biden’s election by endorsing him in the Democratic primary ahead of Super Tuesday. Biden went on to win in South Carolina, and the Democratic primary as a whole.
Clyburn said that his late wife, Emily Clyburn, who died in September 2019, gave him advice on the endorsement before she passed away.
“When I looked among those 20 some off candidates running of the Democratic nomination, several of whom were ever close friends of ours, I remembered what she said to me and I followed her directions, just as I had for the 58 years that we were married,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s remarks on Friday were a chance to honor Clyburn when asked if they were a chance to thank Clyburn for his endorsement in the 2020 primary.
“I would first say that the President and Congressman Clyburn have been friends for decades. They’ve known each other for a long time. And certainly he appreciates Congressman Clyburn’s support for his candidacy when he was running for president,” Psaki told reporters earlier on Friday.
“The president sees this as an opportunity to honor someone who he has had great admiration and respect for many decades,” she added.
By Alex Gangitano