WASHGINGTON DC – Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, hosted a reception Tuesday night at the Naval Observatory in honor of African-American History Month. The vice president’s office was expecting about 150 people, and spotted in the crowd were: Michigan Rep. John Conyers, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (“I told the president, next game, I’ve got him,” Biden said of the former NBA star, “I may be a white boy, but I can jump”), senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, Columbia SC Mayor Steve Benjamin and National Black Caucus of State Legislators president Joe Armstrong.
The Vice President was introduced by his wife, who said “February is a time for all of us to pause to remember the sacrifices and to recognize the contributions of African-Americans who have helped make our country the beacon of freedom, equality and opportunity that it is today.”
Biden spoke about watching the civil rights movement unfold from a distance as he was growing up, but how it nonetheless shaped his thinking in a searing way.
Biden centered most of his remarks on voting rights, tying the March on Selma — which he called a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement because he said it prompted Lyndon Johnson to support the Voting Rights Act — to recent events.
“Without the right to vote, nothing else much mattered,” he said, reflecting on why Selma stood out for him.
Biden described his votes to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act as some of his proudest as a senator. And he reflected on the 1982 reauthorization, which had Ronald Reagan’s support and Strom Thurmond’s vote–which he said seemed at the time like a turning point.
“I thought it was done–finally, finally done,” he said, pounding the podium with his fist.
He expressed his anger and disappointment with last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning parts of the VRA, then quoted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent comparing the ruling to throwing out an umbrella. “There’s a rainstorm,” Biden said.
He specifically pointed to voting legislation in North Carolina, Alabama and Texas as examples of what’s going wrong on the state level.
“These guys never go away. Hatred never, never goes away,” Biden said. “The zealotry of those who wish to limit the franchise cannot be smothered by reason.”
Biden cited the commitment of both the president and attorney general to voting rights, and expressed optimism that Congress would pass legislation to address the overturned parts of the VRA to stop “this kind of malarkey.”
“This fight has been too long, this fight has been too hard, to do anything other than win–not on the margins, but flat-out win.”