Vice President Joe Biden marked Martin Luther King Jr. day by declaring voting “the single most dangerous” right at a breakfast honoring King’s legacy.
“I have to admit I never thought we would be fighting the fight again on voting rights,” Biden said at the event organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights group. “I really didn’t. I really didn’t.”
Although he didn’t call out one party over another in his remarks, he has been a vocal critic of Republican voter suppression efforts in the past. The vice president described civil rights as “issue that really got me involved [in politics] in the first place,” he said, telling stories about racial divisions in his hometown during his childhood.
“This has been the ultimate fight because our opponents know – they know – the single most dangerous thing to give us is the right to vote,” he said to cheers from the audience.
He also shared an anecdote about meeting Mississippi Democrat John Stennis shortly after his election to the Senate in 1973. Stennis, an ardent supporter of segregation who had spent years in the Senate opposing every piece of civil rights legislation that came his way, asked Biden what inspired him to run for office at such a young age.
“Like a damn fool I answered him honestly before thinking, I said ‘civil rights, sir.’ I swear to God,” Biden said. Later Stennis’ position on matters like voting rights would shift, and he became one of the many supporters of the legislation in 1982. Biden said that Stennis told him changing his mind on civil rights ultimately “freed his soul.”
Biden juxtaposed that overwhelming support for the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and 2006 when it was up for reauthorization, with the recent shift within the Republican Party.
“We thought, I thought, we had finally established without any question that not only was the right to vote the most fundamental right in a democracy, but it should continue to be vigilantly looked at to make sure it was still being protected, because those negative voices did not all disappear in America,” he said.
He specifically called out Texas voter ID and North Carolina’s sweeping election reform laws, and turned his support for voting rights to discuss what he sees as the next great battles in the fight for equality, including immigration reform and income inequality.
Biden’s remarks come as lawmakers have introduced legislation to help restore strength to the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, which the Supreme Court weakened significantly in a ruling issued last summer.
The vice president is scheduled to join President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday to hear from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a group formed by Obama last spring in response to long wait times and other voting issues seen at the polls in 2012.