Politics

Biden marks Brown v. Board of Education anniversary amid signs of erosion in Black voter support

WASHINGTON — (AP) — President Joe Biden marked this week's 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that struck down institutionalized racial segregation in public schools by welcoming plaintiffs and family members in the landmark case to the White House.

The Oval Office visit Thursday to commemorate the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools comes with Biden stepping up efforts to highlight his administration's commitment to racial equity.

The president courted Black voters in Atlanta and Milwaukee this week with a pair of Black radio interviews in which he promoted his record on jobs, health care and infrastructure and attacked Republican Donald Trump.

Biden is scheduled Friday to deliver remarks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and — along with Vice President Kamala Harris — meet with the leaders of the Divine Nine, a group of historically Black sororities and fraternities. And the president on Sunday is set to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College, the historically Black college in Atlanta, and speak at an NAACP gala in Detroit.

During Thursday's visit by litigants and their families, the conversation was largely focused on honoring the plaintiffs and the ongoing battle to bolster education in Black communities, according to the participants.

“He commended them for changing our nation for the better and committed to continue his fight to move us closer to the promise of America,” White House senior adviser Stephen Benjamin told reporters following the meeting.

Biden faces a difficult reelection battle in November and is looking to repeat his 2020 success with Black voters, a key bloc in helping him beat Trump. But the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research's polling from throughout Biden's time in office reveals a widespread sense of disappointment with his performance as president, even among some of his most stalwart supporters, including Black adults.

“I don’t accept the premise that there’s any erosion of Black support” for Biden, said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who took part in the Oval Office visit. "This election is not about candidate A vs. candidate B. It’s about whether we have a functioning democracy or something less than that."

Among those who took part in the meeting were John Stokes, a Brown plaintiff; Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose father, Oliver Brown, was the lead plaintiff in the Brown case; and Adrienne Jennings Bennett, a plaintiff in Boiling v. Sharpe, which was argued at the same time and outlawed segregation of schools in Washington, DC. Plaintiffs and family members of litigants of five cases that were consolidated into the historic Brown case took part in the meeting.

The Brown decision struck down an 1896 decision that institutionalized racial segregation with so-called “separate but equal” schools for Black and white students, by ruling that such accommodations were anything but equal.

Brown Henderson said one of the meeting participants called on the president to make May 17, the day the decision was delivered, an annual federal holiday. She said Biden also recognized the courage of the litigants.

“He recognized that back in the fifties and the forties, when Jim Crow was still running rampant, that the folks that you see here were taking a risk when they signed on to be part of this case,” she said. “Any time you pushed back on Jim Crow and segregation, you know, your life, your livelihood, your homes, you were taking a risk. He thanked them for taking that risk.”

The announcement last month that Biden had accepted an invitation to deliver the Morehouse graduation address triggered peaceful student protests and calls for the university administration to cancel over Biden's handling of the war between Israel and Hamas.

Biden in recent days dispatched Benjamin to meet with Morehouse students and faculty.

Benjamin told reporters Thursday that the situation in the Middle East was among the issues he discussed with students and faculty during the visit.