March 3rd, 2013
04:28 PM ET
10 years ago

Biden apologizes for not being in Selma in 1965

(CNN) - At the commemoration of the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday expressed guilt for not joining the Alabama demonstration nearly half a century ago.

The vice president also used the opportunity to lament the dozens of voting restrictions proposed by states in the last couple of years and argued against a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that's now being heard in the Supreme Court.

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In his speech, Biden said he watched the first bloody march as a senior in college. The scene, he said, gave him heavy convictions.

"I regret - and although it's not a part of what I'm supposed to say - I apologize it took me 48 years to get here," Biden said, shortly before joining a crowd to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. "I should have been here. It's one of the regrets that I have and many in my generation have."

The vice president, walking arm-in-arm with notable civil rights activists such as Rep. John Lewis, led the crowd of thousands across the same bridge where police met protestors with brutal force nearly 50 years ago.

"Most of us thought that the hatred the viciousness the bigotry that we'd seen in our own states had at least subsided," Biden said, reflecting on watching the protests. "What we saw was entrenched hostility and prejudice coming face to face with undaunted courage and resolve - a resolve so powerful that it inspired the Congress and the nation to support the Voting Rights Act just four months later."

Biden was elected to the Senate just seven years out of college at the age of 29. Leading up to his first run, he said, "nothing shaped my consciousness (more)...than what happened here in Selma."

This appearance was Biden's first at the tribute. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Selma in 2007 when they were both seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden, himself, has not ruled out a 2016 presidential bid.

While Obama did not accompany Biden on Sunday, the president made headlines when he mentioned Selma and other landmark events in the civil rights movement during his second inauguration speech in January.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," he said.

On March 7, 1965, police clashed with nearly 600 marchers in Selma, forcing them back from the Edmund Pettus Bridge with batons and tear gas. On a day that later became known as "Bloody Sunday," police said they were enforcing then-Gov. George Wallace's ban on demonstrations.

Carrying on the march, the demonstrators ultimately made it to the state's capital, Montgomery, on March 24. The vice president applauded those who took part in the demonstrations, saying they helped "liberate the soul of the United States of America."

"You lost the battle that day, but you won the war," he told the audience at the foot of the bridge. "And in the process you did something that could never be changed: you won the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens all across America."

In a separate speech earlier in the day, Biden added the fight still continues in 2013, pointing to a series of voting laws proposed during the 2012 election and warning of the current case at the Supreme Court involving the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The court will decide this year on challenges to Section 5, a part of the act that gives the federal government open-ended oversight of states and localities, mostly in the South, with a history of voter discrimination. As the law now stands, changes in voting laws and procedures in all or parts of 16 covered states must be "pre-cleared" with Washington.

Read more: Justices offer split views on Voting Rights Act enforcement

Conservative justices on Wednesday suggested it was a constitutionally unnecessary vestige of the civil rights era. The provision was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 for another 25 years and officials in Shelby County, Alabama, subsequently filed suit, saying the monitoring was overly burdensome and unwarranted.

But advocates for the provision say it's necessary to protect voting rights. Biden on Sunday lambasted the idea that Section 5 was even up for debate.

"Strom Thurmond voted for its reauthorization, and yet it's being challenged in Supreme Court of United States of America as we stand here today," Biden said.

The vice president also highlighted other states' attempts to pass voter identification laws last year during the election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states have some sort of voter identification law. Those states include Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, places that also must get Voting Rights Act clearance before enacting new laws.

Democrats have said that such laws are politically motivated and intended to suppress the minority vote, given that fewer people in minority groups carry government-issued IDs. Republicans, meanwhile, make the case that such laws prevent fraud and protect the integrity of the system.

Biden acknowledged that Americans have changed during the last five decades but emphasized "we've come too far together to turn back." And in closing his remarks earlier Sunday, the vice president reiterated his regret of not traveling to walk in solidarity with the demonstrators in 1965.

"I still feel just a little bit of guilt; I was old enough," he said. "I could have been here. I should have been here, 48 years ago."

- CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

Filed under: Alabama • Joe Biden • Voter Problems
soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. tony

    A house divided against itself will fall.

    March 4, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  2. just sayin

    a house divided against itself is obama's goal.

    March 4, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  3. Homer and Jethro

    I was just a kid, and I thought those black folks ought to just get over it. Then I grew up and looked around, and wondered how they'd stood it this long. Those were some scary times to live through.

    March 4, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  4. MesaMax

    One of the most self-serving statements a politician has made in many years.

    March 4, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  5. The thrill

    The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Mitt be a man and accept your lose

    March 4, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  6. Donna

    Why isn't Biden apologizing for the Democrat Party opposing the freeing of the slaves and their opposition to the Voting Rights Act? Why isn't he apologzing for Dem. leader Robery Byrd being in the KKK? THAT is what he needs to apologize for? Not this self serving BS.

    March 4, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  7. Sly

    Thank you Mr. Vice President for apologizing for all of White America, who went on a 100-year Nazi 'Aryan Race' binge.

    Because of the actions of a few good white people, and a bunch of brave black people, blacks were finally allowed to vote in America sometime around the 70's and 80's, although most are still not allowed in the south.

    Progress. Again, it takes a big man to apologize – and Vice President Biden is that man. Prouder to be American today.

    March 4, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  8. Bill

    President Biden: No frills; just substance.

    March 4, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  9. FajitaBob

    When is he gonna apologize for everything else from his last 50 years?

    March 4, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  10. FajitaBob

    How long has it been since the sitting VP did NOT get the party's nomination?

    March 4, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  11. Reality Check

    Why isn't Biden apologizing for the Democrat Party opposing the freeing of the slaves and their opposition to the Voting Rights Act? Why isn't he apologzing for Dem. leader Robery Byrd being in the KKK? THAT is what he needs to apologize for? Not this self serving BS.

    Yes, how ironic it is that the blacks in the USA are now owned by the very party that wanted to keep them in bondage. Talk about being brain washed.

    March 4, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  12. omahakidw

    This clown has stated that "all options are ont eh table" ! We need to let the world know that we tried is diplomacy hndoes`nt go our way , another way for say "unless Iran does`nt do what we want" ! These "striong arm tactics" by this big mouth wanna-be President are very irresponsable. He said we would`nt be responsable for the millions of deaths that would happen if this country decided to bomb Iran ? He`s not only a complete idiot, but he should have his head examined period.

    March 4, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  13. bombastus

    Reply to Reality Check

    There's irony everywhere. Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves and for many years the South was heavily Democratic. FDR did not touch the race issue or he'd lose the South. That all changed after the voting rights act and Nixon's moral majority (read racist white people). The GOP was very clever in using this to swing the South to their side and get people to vote against there own best interests. The South remains Republican and all the shenanigans with restricting voting by minorities is a Republican effort. So the parties have flipped in their attitude about race which is one big reason the GOP got clobbered in the election.

    March 4, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
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