Biden Burnishes His Civil Rights Credentials at MLK Breakfast

By Susan Jones | January 21, 2014 | 5:54 AM EST

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the National Action Network on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. (AP Photo)

( - "I don't need a teleprompter," Vice President Joe Biden said as he rose to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast in Washington on Monday.

He then launched into a speech full of political anecdotes, memories of his early activism in the civil rights movement, and indignation about alleged attempts to curb voting rights.

Biden said he got involved in the civil rights movement "when I was just a kid."

"The issue that really got me involved in the first place -- I was the only white kid working in the East Side (of Scranton, Pa.)...I was a lifeguard in the big city swimming pool. And the guys -- athletes got the jobs there, and I was one of 17 employees but the only white guy.

"It was a bit of an epiphany for me. I thought I knew a lot about what's going on. But I really mean this. All of a sudden I was in the midst of the everyday culture of people who lived in the midst of white folks who didn't know any white folks. Every day passing them, every day went to school with them. It was the single most significant thing that happened to me, preparing me for my job."

Biden said he got involved in desegregating movie theaters and organizing voter registration drives.

And he said he "never thought" he'd be fighting "new attempts -- new attempts -- to restrict the right of our people to vote."

Biden told his mostly liberal black audience, "there's a lot of people out there today" who are trying to restrict hard-won voting rights, and he criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling that "the heart of the Voting Rights Act was no longer needed."

"No longer needed, despite the fact the federal court had just declared a Texas voter ID law so harsh that it would, quote, impose strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor? No longer needed, despite the fact that at least 90 similar bills were being considered in 33 states, like the one in North Carolina, which imposed a new photo ID requirement, shortened early voting, eliminated same-day registration for early voting; in Alabama, a photo ID bill that passed in 2011 but was never implemented because of the Voting Rights Act and now is the law?

"Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg got it right when she said throwing out the existing process when it's working and continues to work is, quote, like throwing away an umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet. And now we're in a hailstorm, new attempts by states and localities to limit ballot access without the full protection of the law. Folks, it's time we take stock."

Biden said the United States is "on the brink of bringing 11 million people out of the shadows onto a path of citizenship, making us not only a more humane country but more economically successful country."

He then checked off the familiar liberal promises, to predictable cheers and applause:

"I think we're in the process of guaranteeing that no one who works 40 hours a week will have to continue to live in poverty. We're going to raise that minimum wage.

"I think we're in the final stages of rectifying the injustice of income equality (sic) between women and men. Not only is it unjust for women to make 70 cents on the dollar, compared to a man, it's stupid economically. It's against our economic interest.

"And it's way past time that we stopped arguing about whether every American has the right to adequate, affordable health care.  Thanks to Barack Obama, that fight is over, and we are not going back, period.

"So though I'm confident to my core with all these fights, as in the past, we shall overcome, but let me remind you all, it all rests ultimately on the ballot box."

Singling out a woman named "Jean" at the conclusion of his speech, Biden joked, "We may not be black (laughter) but I tell you what, we're Irish, and we know how to fight."