Remarks by Joe Biden saying he had no problem working in Congress with a reviled segregationist roiled the Democratic Party on Thursday, with some voicing support for the former Vice President, but others sharply denouncing his statement.
Fellow White House contender Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) upbraided Biden, demanding an apology for remarks made at a fundraiser Tuesday that stressed the professional comity the then-Delaware senator shared years ago with staunch segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat.
Biden responded to Booker’s criticism with indignation, telling reporters on Wednesday that “there’s not a racist bone in my body.”
The controversy ricocheted through the party this week, with several leading figures — including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) — all presidential contenders — among the Democrats issuing statements critical of Biden.
Other party leaders, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), came to Biden’s defense. “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them,” said Clyburn, the top-ranking African American in the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, at her weekly press briefing on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) described Biden as an “authentic” character, without explicitly praising or defending his controversial comments.
“I think authenticity is the most important characteristic that candidates have to convey to the American people. And Joe Biden is authentic,” Pelosi told reporters in response to a question about the war of words between the former vice president and Booker.
“He has lived his life, he considers certain things a resource, that he has worked across the aisle. That’s what he was saying.”
From there, Pelosi pivoted to the November 2020 election. “That’s not what this election is about,” she said. “For us to spend time on an issue like this, which is important, but, it’s not central to what the election is about.”
Eastland has come to be a reviled figure in most quarters of the party and is a figure seen as being part of its ignoble past.
When black Americans had the temerity to boycott public buses in Montgomery, Alabama, over unconstitutional segregationist policies governing the transit system, Eastland lent his voice to the enraged local whites.
“In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking n******,” Eastland said at a rally put on by the White Citizens Council.
In equally revoting remarks, he was also quoted as saying that “all whites are created equal with certain rights, “[and] among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead n******.”
Half a century later, much of that racism is stamped into the successor form of Eastland’s political movement — which since has realigned under the GOP banner — and has been reformatted to mostly reflect a societal agreement that white people oughtn’t say the n-word.
Booker’s rebuke of Biden reminded the would-be president that politicians like Eastland aimed to “perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.”
His statement did not specifically note that Biden’s remarks had become public on Juneteenth — the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which did not take practical effect for most enslaved Americans until the United States Army had beaten the secessionist forces that sought to preserve chattel slavery two years later.
He did, however, ask Biden to apologize “for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans.”
ThinkProgress reporter Alan Pyke contributed to this piece.