By Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and top White House officials railed against white supremacy on Monday, asking Americans to unite against hatred in the wake of what authorities describe as a racially-motivated killing of three Black people in Florida over the weekend.
“Hate will not prevail in America,” Biden told civil rights leaders and administration officials in the East Room of the White House. “Now is the time for all Americans to speak up. History is being erased, books are being banned.”
Biden hammered home the message in two separate meetings at the White House, one attended by the family of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. He hailed his administration’s work to fight against hate crimes, voter suppression and ensuring equal rights for all, as well as making lynching a federal hate crime.
“Silence is complicity and we’re not going to remain silent,” Biden said. “White supremacy is a poison.”A 21-year old white gunman shot and killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday. The shooter, Ryan Christopher Palmeter, later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Biden said the killings were being investigated as a hate crime.
Local sheriff T.K. Waters has said the shooting was racially motivated. Authorities say the shooter left behind several manifestos for media, his parents and law enforcement detailing his hatred for Black people.
Hate crimes in the U.S. surged nearly 12% in 2021, according to the latest data available, the FBI said in March, with the majority fueled by racial or ethnic bias.
“We have to act,” Biden insisted, noting that white supremacy was now the greatest terrorist threat facing the United States. “All of us need to say clearly and personally, as forcefully as we can, that hate will not prevail.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, in the East Room, warned that “there are those who are intentionally trying to divide us as a nation.” Americans have “a duty not to let factions sever our unity,” she said.
“Over the last 60 years this country has come a long way” to battle racism and white supremacy ideology, Stephen Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told reporters at a White House briefing. “People of good will have to lean into that progress.”
Biden had spoken with Jacksonville’s mayor and sheriff about the shooting, Benjamin said.
“There’s a whole group of extreme people trying to erase history,” Biden said in the East room, an apparent reference to attempts by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, to change how slavery is taught in the state’s public schools in a way that critics say minimizes its brutality.
Benjamin said it was important to teach all of the country’s history.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that trying to rewrite American history is wrong, but also encourages our children and those among us not to lean in to the beautiful and also the painful past of what our history looks like and encouraging people to move forward together,” Benjamin said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jarrett RenshawEditing by Heather Timmons, David Gregorio, Rosalba O’Brien and Shri Navaratnam)