Joe Biden has refused to apologize for remarks in which he praised the “civility” of an arch-segregationist Mississippi senator he used to collaborate with. He has called on the critics of his remarks, in particular 2020 rival Cory Booker, to make amends, instead. “Cory should apologize. He knows better,” Biden said. “I’ve not a racist bone in my body.”
The controversy began at a fundraiser on Tuesday night. Biden was lamenting the decline of comity in America’s political culture when his remarks took a dark detour. The former vice president voiced nostalgia for his ability to partner with Southern segregationist Democrats back when he joined the Senate in the 1970s. “At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished.”
For Biden, the remarks seemed intended to build on the narrative he’s framed for himself as an old-school politician, versed in bipartisanship, who knows how to make Washington work. Decrying the current state of affairs in the Beltway, Biden added: “Today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
But in his remarks — delivered on the eve of Juneteenth, the day that marks the bitter end of slavery in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — Biden voiced fondness for one colleague in particular, James Eastland, a Mississippi senator with a despicable legacy of racial hatred and incitement who was also a mentor to Biden in his early days in Washington. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden told the assembled donors. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
Biden’s remarks drew swift rebukes from 2020 challengers, including Booker and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — both of whom insisted Biden should apologize.
Eastland was a giant in the Senate and an avatar of the darkest racism of the Civil Rights-era South. He was a plantation owner who championed white supremacy in language that now shocks the conscience. During the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts of the mid-1950s, Eastland appeared at a rally of the White Citizens Council to deliver remarks that stopped just short of a call for racial genocide. As memorialized by the historian Robert Caro, Eastland said:
In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers … African flesh-eaters. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives… All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.
Eastland brought such language with him to Washington. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, when President Kennedy wanted to seat Thurgood Marshall on the federal bench, Eastland worked out a political horse trade with Bobby Kennedy, then the attorney general. Eastland sought, and won, a judicial seat for a friend, Harold Cox, who shared his racist worldview. “You tell your bother,” Eastland told RFK, “if he gives me Cox, I will give him his nigger.”
By the 1970s Eastland was firmly on the wrong side of history. But according to his biographer, the senator took a shine to a young Joe Biden in the Senate — both because of the tragic loss of Biden’s wife and daughter in a car crash, and because of their shared opposition to forced school integration through student bussing. “Eastland was particularly anxious to mentor young members,” writes J. Lee Annis in Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi. “One favorite over his last term was Joseph Biden. … Aware that Biden shared his opposition to bussing and admiring that he had contemplated resigning his seat to take care of his two surviving sons, Eastland took an interest in him. … Two years later, Eastland guided Biden to a seat on the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee.”
Booker, who rarely speaks ill of fellow Democrats, hit Biden first on Wednesday: “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” he said in a statement. “Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.”
“Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people and for everyone,” Booker added. Insisting Biden was “wrong” for pointing to his relationships with segregationists “as examples of how to bring our country together,” Booker continued: “I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
If Booker’s criticism of Biden was somewhat muted, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called out the former vice president unabashedly. De Blasio posted a photo of his interracial family and blasted Biden as “out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party,” adding: “It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden.”
It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party. (2/2)
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) June 19, 2019
California senator and 2020 rival Kamala Harris also expressed concern over Biden’s “misinformed” praise of openly racist politicians, noting her own experience as a woman of color in the Senate. “The senators he’s speaking of with such adoration made and built their reputation on segregation … people who, if they had their way, I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate.”
— Mariam Khan (@MKhan47) June 19, 2019
The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment. But the former vice president spoke to reporters Wednesday evening, refusing to apologize and re-framing his remarks.
Biden hits back at Booker over segregationist senator.
“Apologize for what? Cory [Booker] should apologize. He knows better” pic.twitter.com/xq8lLk4tTj
— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) June 20, 2019
“Here’s the deal,” Biden said. “I could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more. He was a segregationist. I ran for the United States Senate because I disagreed with the views of the segregationists.” Biden spoke of his work sustaining the Voting Rights Act, before adding: “The point I’m making is: You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like the people, in terms of their views. But you just simply make the case and you beat them. You beat them — without changing the system.”
Asked if he was prepared to apologize as Booker had called for, Biden snapped back: “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. I’ve not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in Civil Rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”