by Emily Larsen · April 14, 2019
Former Vice President Joe Biden once told black voters that Republicans planned to “put you all in chains” and has frequently touted his popularity with African Americans, often stating that they make up 20% of voters in his home state of Delaware.
But Biden, 76, has also spoke fondly of his relationships with segregationists who sat in the United States Senate when he arrived there at the age of 30 and joined a chamber of 99 white men and one black man, Edward Brooke, a Republican.
Currently leading in 2020 Democratic primary polls even before he announces his candidacy, Biden has positioned himself to appeal to moderate Democratic voters and has argued that his ability to befriend and respect those with whom he disagrees is an asset.
“I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland,” Biden said at a campaign rally for Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., in 2017. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
Eastland, a Democrat from Mississippi who died in 1986, said many times that he thought black people belonged to “an inferior race.” When later asked if he would change anything in his political career, he said that he “voted my convictions on everything.”
When Biden faced a re-election in 1978, Eastland even offered to help Biden’s Senate campaign. “I looked at Eastland. He said, ‘What can old Jim Eastland do for you in Delaware?’” Biden recounted at a 2016 Labor Day event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, some places you’d help and some places you’d hurt.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll come to Delaware and campaign for you or against you, whichever will help the most.’”
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., gave the longest filibuster in the history of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In 1948, when Thurmond was the governor of South Carolina and seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, he displayed blatant racism in a speech at the States’ Rights Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” convention:
“There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the [N-word] race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” Thurmond said.
Biden said he became “good friends” with Thurmond, who lived to 100, and his wife. He gave a eulogy at his funeral in 2003, in which he noted that Thurmond voted in favor of expanding the Voting Rights Act and making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday, and stated that Thurmond changed his views later in life.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., is known for opposing a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and opposing the busing of black students to end segregation in schools. In his farewell speech to the Senate in 2009, Biden mentioned that Helms became his friend and his wife became a “close friend that I still kept in contact with.”
While Biden now highlights his disagreements with segregationists and separates himself from their politics when he mentions them, in the 70s, he supported anti-busing amendments introduced by Helms and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a former Ku Klux Klan recruiter who later renounced his racist past.
“For a lot of this, he was a friend, he was a mentor, and he was a guide,” Biden said in a eulogy at Byrd’s funeral in 2010.
In 1975, Biden argued that integration would prevent black people from embracing “their own identity,” audio obtained by the Washington Examiner revealed. In 1977 and 1978, Biden repeatedly sought and received support for anti-busing proposals from Eastland and other segregationists, letters published by CNN show.
Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, told the Washington Examiner that Biden’s relationships with segregationists do not necessarily indicate that he was influenced by their views. Rather, “his leveraging their segregationists bona fides to support his anti-busing legislative initiatives was a matter of political expediency, consistent with the position of his white suburban base in Delaware,” Dunn said.
Dunn said that while Biden’s relationships “might appear troubling, particularly in the context of today’s political environment,” politicians’ relationships with ideological adversaries were likely not uncommon at the time.
In 2017, progressive PAC Justice Democrats, which supports young firebrands such as freshmen members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, blasted Biden for touting his relationships with segregationists in a 2017.
“So according to Joe, the political system worked when the political elite could sit down and have dinner together with each other while people facing [oppression] suffered.”
Washington Examiner · by Emily Larsen · April 14, 2019