Among the many special guests at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Thursday was the jazz singer and civil rights legend Bettie Mae Fikes.

Beloved as the Voice of Selma, Fikes is known for having led protests in song. She often changed the lyrics of Black standards to match the movement: “Tell [Dallas County, Alabama, Sheriff] Jim Clark, I’m going to let it shine,” went her version of “This Little Light of Mine.” She also participated in Bloody Sunday, the march that fueled the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Fikes’ presence on Thursday — the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday — was a reminder that the right to vote is far from settled. Across the South, the Voting Rights Act faces a fresh assault from Republican lawmakers and Republican-nominated judges.

The threat to the ballot box was just one of many Black priority issues that Biden addressed in his speech. Others included student debt relief and reproductive justice. Meanwhile, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war was a point of tension.

“Hundreds of foot soldiers for justice marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Grand Dragon of the KKK, to claim their fundamental right to vote,” Biden said. “But 59 years later, there are forces taking us back in time. Voter suppression. Election subversion. Unlimited dark money. Extreme gerrymandering. … Pass and send me the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act!”


Read More: How the Legacy of a Reconstruction-Era Massacre Shapes Voting Rights Today


Advocates emphasized the importance of federal legislation when it comes to protecting the power of the franchise.

“We have employed litigation and legislative strategies to safeguard voting rights at the state level,” Elsie Cooke-Holmes, the international president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a co-plaintiff in the legal challenges to restrictive voting legislation in Texas and Georgia, told Worldacad. “Yet the true remedy lies in federal intervention.”

She added, “We firmly advocate for the passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — it honors the efforts of our predecessors. It enshrines a future that values every voice and vote, fostering a multicultural and inclusive democracy.”

Of course, passing federal voting rights legislation is difficult, given the current composition of Congress: Democrats hold the thinnest of majorities in the Senate. But the margins are changing, as redrawn voting maps in states such as Louisiana shrink Republicans’ slim House advantage.

In the absence of robust federal legislation, some advocates are increasingly pushing for state Voting Rights Acts, which allow states to fill in the gaps left by congressional gridlock. Six states — Connecticut, California, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington — have passed such legislation.

Beyond the ballot box

Biden also zoomed in on other Black voter concerns, including the student debt crisis and reproductive justice.

Millions of Americans are saddled with student loan debt, with the balance adding up to more than $1.7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Since entering the White House, Biden has wiped out about $138 billion in federal student loans, benefiting some 3.9 million borrowers — more than any of his predecessors.

“I want to give every child a good start by providing access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. … Let’s continue increasing Pell Grants for working- and middle-class families and increase our record investments in HBCUs and Hispanic and minority-serving Institutions,” he said. “I fixed student loan programs to reduce the burden of student debt for nearly 4 million Americans, including nurses, firefighters, and others in public service.”

These were the kinds of commitments that Shauna Sias, a resident of Opelousas, Louisiana, had hoped to hear the president discuss.

She told Worldacad that she wanted to hear Biden “talk about investing in children’s education — more funding for schools and social services” because we ought to be “preparing children for 21st century jobs.”


Read More: How Biden Can Reclaim Black Voters’ Support in 2024


The battle over abortion access loomed large on Thursday. Black women have been disproportionately burdened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and have had to travel especially long distances to receive care or risk facing criminalization for miscarriages.

Most recently, the debates around abortion access have pivoted toward in vitro fertilization. In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos should be considered children. Since then, lawmakers in the state have passed legislation to protect providers from criminal and civil liability, but Senate Republicans have thwarted legislation protecting nationwide access to IVF treatment.

“Like most Americans, I believe Roe v. Wade got it right. And I thank Vice President [Kamala] Harris for being an incredible leader, defending reproductive freedom and so much more,” Biden said, referring to Harris’ tour across the country intended to push back against the attacks on reproductive justice.

Joining Biden on Thursday was Latorya Beasley, a social worker from Birmingham, Alabama, whose embryo transfer was canceled after the state Supreme Court decision.

“What her family has gone through should never have happened. And unless Congress acts, it could happen again,” Biden said.

Black women are disproportionately at risk of infertility, and they face heightened barriers to care when they seek treatment. Often, Black women have to navigate multiple rounds of IVF for successful pregnancies.

If there was one issue where Biden fell short in the eyes of some Black voters, it was the Israel-Hamas war, which since October has claimed at least 30,000 lives. In his speech, the president announced plans for the U.S. military to construct a temporary port in Gaza to bring critical aid into the war-devastated strip.

But that move is far from what some Black voters want: a call for an immediate ceasefire. (Notably, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who’s Palestinian American, and Cori Bush of Missouri both held up signs that read “Lasting Ceasefire Now.”)

“[I want Biden to] stop the genocide in Palestine and protect the civil and human rights of Palestinians,” Sias stressed.

On the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, she offered something like a plea — for the president to support the rights and dignity of marginalized people at home and abroad with equal passion.

Worldacad staff writer Margo Snipe contributed to this report.

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.