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Biden condemns white supremacy in a campaign speech at SC church where Black people were killed

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, where nine worshippers were killed in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
Stephanie Scarbrough/AP
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, where nine worshippers were killed in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Courting Black voters he needs to win reelection, President Joe Biden on Monday denounced the “poison” of white supremacy in America, declaring at the site of a deadly racist church shooting in South Carolina that such ideology has no place in America, “not today, tomorrow or ever.”

Biden spoke from the pulpit of Mother Emanuel AME Church, where in 2015 nine Black parishioners were shot to death by the white stranger they had invited to join their Bible study. The Democratic president’s speech followed his blunt remarks last Friday on the eve of the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, in which he excoriated former President Donald Trump for “glorifying” rather than condemning political violence.

At Mother Emanuel, Biden said “the word of God was pierced by bullets of hate, of rage, propelled not just by gunpowder, but by a poison, a poison that has for too long haunted this nation."

That's "white supremacy,” he said, the view by some whites that they are superior to other races. “It is a poison, throughout our history, that's ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”

It was a grim way to kick off a presidential campaign, particularly for someone known for his unfailing optimism and belief that American achievements are limitless. But it’s a reflection of the emphasis Biden and his campaign are placing on energizing Black voters amid deepening concerns among Democrats that the president could lose support from this critical constituency heading into the election.

Biden’s campaign advisers and aides hope the visit lays out the stakes of the race in unequivocal terms three years after the cultural saturation of Trump’s words and actions while he was president. It's a contrast they hope will be paramount to voters in 2024.

Biden also used his second major campaign event of the year to thank the state's Black voters. After an endorsement by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the U.S. House, the state made Biden the winner of its Democratic presidential primary in 2020. That, in turn, set him on a path to become the party's nominee and defeat Trump to win the presidency.

“I owe you,” he said.

Biden was briefly interrupted when several people upset over by his staunch support for Israel in its war against Hamas called out that if he really cared about lives lost he would call for a cease-fire in Gaza to help innocent Palestinians who are being killed under Israel's bombardment. The chants of “cease-fire now” were drowned out by audience members chanting “four more years.”

The president also swiped at Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, and Trump, without naming either one.

Haley was governor at the time of the shooting and gained national attention for her response, which included signing legislation into law removing the Confederate flag from the state Capitol. But she has been on the defensive recently for not explicitly naming slavery as the root cause of the Civil War when the question was posed at a campaign event. Her campaign responded Monday with a list of comments attributed to Biden that it said showed he's racially insensitive.

Biden called it a “lie” that the war was about states' rights. “So let me be clear, for those who don't seem to know: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There's no negotiation about that.”

Haley, speaking at a Fox News Channel town hall on Monday, pushed back that it was “offensive” for Biden to give a political speech at the church. She also raised Biden’s ties to Democratic segregationist senators early in his career.

During his successful 2020 run for the White House, Biden faced criticism from fellow Democratic contenders for alluding to his work with Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia while trying to make a point about lost civility in national politics.

“I don’t need someone who palled around with segregationists in the '70s and has said racist comments all the way through his career lecturing me or anyone in South Carolina about what it means to have racism, slavery, or anything related to the Civil War,” Haley said.

On more current events, Biden noted the scores of failed attempts by Trump in the courts to overturn the 2020 election in an attempt to hold onto power, as well as the former president's embrace of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Let me say what others cannot: We must reject political violence in America. Always, not sometimes. Always. It's never appropriate,” Biden said. He said “losers are taught to concede when they lose. And he's a loser,” meaning Trump.

It was June 17, 2015, when a 21-year-old white man walked into the church and, intending to ignite a race war, shot and killed nine Black parishioners and wounded one more. Biden was vice president when he attended the memorial service in Charleston.

Biden's aides and allies say the shootings are among the critical moments when the nation's political divide started to sharpen and crack. Though Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, was not in office at the time and has called the shooting “horrible,” Biden is seeking to tie Trump’s current rhetoric to such violence.

Two years after the attack, as the “Unite The Right" gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in violent clashes with counterprotesters. Trump said merely that “there is blame on both sides."

Biden and his aides argue it’s all part of the same problem: Trump refused to condemn the actions of the white nationalists at that gathering. He’s repeatedly used rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country,” yet insisted he had no idea that one of the world’s most reviled and infamous figures had used similar words.

And Trump continues to repeat his false claims that he won the 2020 election, as well as his assertion that the Capitol rioters were patriotic and those serving prison time are “hostages.”

At Mother Emanuel, Biden revisited themes from the Jan. 6 anniversary speech he delivered Friday.

Biden has repeatedly suggested that democracy itself is on the ballot, asking whether it is still “America’s sacred cause.”

Trump, who faces 91 criminal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn his loss to Biden and three other felony cases, argues that Biden and other top Democrats are themselves seeking to undermine democracy by using the legal system to thwart the campaign of Biden's chief rival.

South Carolina is the first official Democratic nominating contest where Biden wants another strong showing.

In an interview with The Associated Press before Biden's appearance, Malcolm Graham, a brother of Charleston church victim Cynthia Graham-Hurd, said the threat of racism and hate-fueled violence is part of a needed national conversation about race and American democracy.

“Racism, hatred and discrimination continue to be the Achilles' heel of America, of our nation,” said Graham, a city councilman in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Certainly, what happened to the Emanual Nine years ago is a visible example of that. What happened in Buffalo, years later, where people were killed under similar circumstances, shows that racism and discrimination are still real and it’s even in our politics.”

After the speech, Biden met privately with religious leaders and family members and survivors of the church shooting. He also dropped in at Hannibal's Kitchen, a soul food restaurant, to shake hands.

Later Monday, Biden flew to Dallas to make a brief stop at a memorial service for Eddie Bernice Johnson, the influential former Texas congresswoman who died on New Year's Eve. Johnson was 89.

Biden said in a statement last week that he and Johnson had worked together during her 30 years in Congress and he was grateful for her friendship and partnership.


This story has been corrected to show Johnson died on New Year's Eve, not New Year's Day.


Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Des Moines, Iowa, and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this report. Miller and Superville reported from Washington.

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