In the blur of breaking news, one of President Joe Biden’s first speeches of the 2024 campaign was given in South Carolina and was mostly forgotten in the ongoing coverage of the state’s democratic primary on Feb. 3, 2024.
We should pay it more attention.
The site of the speech on Jan. 8, 2024, was Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, where, on a summer evening in 2015, an avowed white supremacist murdered nine Black worshipers, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state representative. At Pinckney’s funeral, then-President Barack Obama sang a heart-felt version of the Christian hymn Amazing Grace.
From the pulpit, Biden sounded like a preacher.
“The word of God was pierced by bullets in hate and rage, propelled by not just gunpowder but by a poison,” Biden said. “A poison that’s for too long haunted this nation. What is that poison? White supremacy. … Throughout our history, it’s ripped this nation apart.”
As a historian who studies democracy in the American South, I am doing research for a book on free speech, lying and fascism in America during the 1920s and 1930s. What I have learned is that Biden’s Mother Emanuel speech should rank with some of the most important speeches in our history.
The original big lie
In 1820, 44 years after the nation’s birth, U.S. Sen. William Smith of South Carolina was the first to claim in Congress that men were not created equal. Boldly rejecting the Declaration of Independence as effusive “enthusiasm,” Smith injected white supremacy into public discourse.
It spread like wildfire, and there’s little wonder. Smith, who owned several plantations and at least 71 enslaved people, was among more than 1,800 U.S. legislators who enslaved Black people.
Southern propagandists rewrote history, arguing the founders never really believed in equality. If you disagreed, vigilante thugs would beat you up or chase you into exile. They killed more than a few people who spoke up against slavery.
‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’
The Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford extended Southern racist ideology into the North. Black people, the court held, are “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and … the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery.”
The following year, in his campaign for the U. S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln sounded the alarm. He addressed the consequences of slavery on America’s democracy and warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“This government cannot endure,” he said, “permanently half slave and half free. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it … or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.”
The Civil War was supposed to end slavery and the white supremacist ideology that underpinned it. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, known as the Reconstruction amendments, made equality explicit in the Constitution, extending civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans.
That upended the Southern social order.
The South then invented what Biden called the “self-serving lie” of the “Lost Cause,” the rewritten version of the Civil War that claims slavery had nothing to do with the war. The white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan was the violent hammer of this “Lost Cause,” and its emergence coincided with Jim Crow laws that established racial segregation across the South and disenfranchised Black voters until the 1960s.
Democracies in peril
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sounded a new alarm. His “Four Freedoms” speech was an updated version of Lincoln’s and further defined freedom within a democracy.
The immediate issue was whether the U.S. should help England and other European allies defend against the fascist regimes of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
This was no academic question of foreign policy. In helping Britain, President Roosevelt stated, the United States was fighting for the universal freedoms that all people possessed: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Biden has rung a similiar alarm. During his speech at Mother Emanuel church – and again during other campaign stops before the Feb. 3 Democratic Party primary in South Carolina – Biden acknowledged that he is not only running against the GOP front-runner Donald Trump but also against a “second lost cause” myth.
Biden called out Trump for his “big lie” about the 2020 election that Trump has repeatedly claim was “rigged” against him. He criticized those who he said are attempting to “steal history” again and spin the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as “a peaceful protest.”
At its core, Biden warned, Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a resurrection of southern-style white nationalism and the age-old disregard for equal rights.
“We all know who Donald Trump is,” Biden said during his speech and in his ads, calling on Americans to work to make up for centuries of racism and discrimination “The question we have to answer is who are we?”