Sept. 15 is a somber date in Southern history, as domestic terrorists set off a bomb on that day in 1963 that killed four young girls who were members of a church choir.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the 16th. Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on the anniversary this year demonstrated the very qualities that not only make him the front-runner, but a good bet to win the White House.
Sitting among members of the media, I heard all of the buzz beforehand. How would Biden connect with the crowd? How would they react to “the old white guy?” Would we witness a gaffe or a stumble over a line? Would we be treated to a stump speech that would be out of place on this date?
As Biden arrived, he moved through the crowd like a regular Sunday church attendee, greeting members like old friends. He likes getting close to everybody, by the way, lacking those Northern arms-length formalities.
The Rev. Ruth Naomi Segres, an Air Force chaplain, hit it out of the park with a call to action, combining forgiveness with remembering what happened back in 1963 (“Tell the story!” she insisted). One wondered how Biden could possibly keep up with her fiery enthusiasm.
He didn’t. But he struck the right notes, reminding us that the tragedy was personal, too.
Biden won the crowd over by congratulating the nervous yet outstanding young soloist before he spoke. Then he adopted a somber tone, speculating on how what the girls would have been like, approaching their 70s today, noting that’s what those who lose loved ones do. He talked about his own family losses in tragedy, and how attending a memorial service at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, helped him overcome his own grief during tragedy, while not pretending to personally “know” the experience of African Americans. “Those who are white try, but we can never fully understand.”
After documenting recent killings at churches, synagogues, and shopping malls where certain types of people were targeted, Biden added “This violence does not live in the past. It is not relegated to the pages of history. We still strive for the American Creed, where we hold these truths to be self-evident. We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it either.”
Biden talked about the violence in Charlottesville being a “defining moment” and a “battle for the soul of America.” He asked “Who do we want to be?” quoting the line, “Faith sees best in the dark.”
Afterward, he participated in the wreath-laying ceremony for the victims of the tragedy, embracing the families. “We are so glad that he focused on why we are all here, instead of calling out Trump by name, or covering other issues” a church leader told me.
“You could tell that he really likes being here,” an African-American reporter observed. “And they love him, too.” Gone were all of the nit-picks, claimed slights, decades-old votes or musings about whether or not “an old white guy” could connect. Biden showed that you don’t need a fiery speech in a church to get the point across. Just being yourself would be a great start.