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Biden demands action on voting rights at South Carolina State University commencement

Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Friday dug into Republican opposition to advancing federal voting rights legislation during a commencement address at South Carolina State University.

His remarks came ahead of a renewed push on voting rights, even as he acknowledged Thursday night that another major legislative priority of his administration, the Build Back Better social spending bill, will need to wait until 2022.

“I’ve never seen anything like the unrelenting assault on the right to vote. Never,” Biden said Friday during his address to the graduates.

Showing some clear frustration, Biden said, “We have to protect that sacred right to vote, for God’s sake.”

The president mentioned his key role in getting an extension of the original Voting Rights Act passed with bipartisan support in 1982, saying that at the time he thought the nation was “finally beginning to move.”

“But this new sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion, it’s un-American, it’s undemocratic, and sadly, it is unprecedented since Reconstruction,” he said.

He said his administration has supported Democratic efforts to reform voting rights since “day one” and that there is “unanimous support” within the party, but with the filibuster in Congress blocking its efforts, Biden again criticized Republicans for not even wanting to debate voting rights legislation.

“But each and every time it gets to be brought up, that other team blocks the ability even to start to discuss it. That other team — it used to be called the Republican Party. But this battle is not over. We must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We must!” Biden said.

Earlier this year, Biden expressed support for altering filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation, but he did not make the same call Friday.

The president also focused on “hate and racism” in his remarks.

There is currently a “reckoning on race not seen since the 50s and 60s,” he said, adding that the graduates are entering a “tumultuous and consequential moment in modern American history.”

He pointed to the Orangeburg, South Carolina, massacre of 1968 and the mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. He said there was a “through-line” of hate and racism that extended to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Those marchers were “carrying torches and Nazi banners, screeching [the] most antisemitic and anti-Black rhetoric in history,” Biden said.

Referencing former President Donald Trump, he said that “when asked what he thought about it, Trump said, ‘well there’s some very good people there.'”

“Hell very good people! They’re racist, they’re fascist,” Biden said.

Biden also invoked the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, saying that he gets asked by world leaders, “Is America going to be alright” after witnessing those scenes play out.

After his speech, Biden was presented with an honorary doctorate from the university.

The university also gave a degree to Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat representing South Carolina. Clyburn graduated from South Carolina State University in December 1961 but only received his diploma by mail and did not walk across the aisle until Friday’s ceremony.

In remarks before Biden spoke, Clyburn told the audience about how his late wife, Emily Clyburn, who he met after they were both jailed for civil rights demonstrations while students at the university, encouraged him to support President Joe Biden in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“Not long before she passed away a little over two years ago, she said to me: If we want to succeed in this upcoming election, we’d better nominate Joe Biden,” Clyburn said.

“She passed away before the South Carolina primary, but what she said to me in that night stayed on my mind… And I followed her directions, just I had for the fifty-eight years that we were married.”

Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden in 2020 is credited as a deciding factor in helping him clinch the presidency.

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