“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body.”
Thus did a stung Joe Biden answer rival Cory Booker’s demand he apologize for telling contributors, in a southern drawl, “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland, He never called me ‘boy.’ He always called me ‘son.”
Joe was recalling fondly a time in the 1970s when he came into the Senate at 30, having lost his wife and child in an accident, and “Jim” Eastland, the arch-segregationist from Mississippi, took him under his wing and became a patron, mentor and friend.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boy’,” Booker had said. “Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people.”
Kamala Harris piled on: If Biden’s segregationist friends “had their way … I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted a photo of his black wife and two children, saying, “Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n—–s.'”
Said The Washington Post, “(Biden’s) history of collegiality with racists is being seen by many in his party as a reason to question his judgment — and not, as Biden says, a sign of his civility.”
This portends a coming clash over race inside the Democratic Party in 2019 and perhaps 2020. For Joe is bleeding and his rivals can see in his segregationist friends of yesterday a way to peel off the black support crucial to his nomination.
Biden is about to have his nose rubbed in friendships formed almost half a century ago.
Like reparations for slavery, on which hearings have opened in the House, this issue seems certain to arise in the debates next week, where taking down Biden will be an objective of every other candidate.
And Jim Eastland is not the only segregationist friend Joe had.
Joe called Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who conducted the longest filibuster in history against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, “one of my closest friends,” and delivered a eulogy at Strom’s funeral.
When Joe backed an anti-busing amendment in the 1970s, Sen. Jesse Helms, on the Senate floor, welcomed him to the “ranks of the enlightened.” On leaving the Senate for the vice presidency in 2009, Biden spoke of his “close personal relationships” with “Eastland, Stennis, Thurmond … all these men became my friends.”
Those three Senators all signed the Southern Manifesto pledging “massive resistance” to desegregation of the public schools mandated by the Brown decision of 1954. All three opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted after bloody Sunday at Selma Bridge.
Asked her views on Biden’s remarks, Elizabeth Warren joined the attack: “It’s never OK to celebrate segregationists. Never.”
But if that is the new Warren Rule in Democratic politics, it may be hard to maintain. For the Democratic Party, the oldest party on earth, was from its founding to the final third of the 20th century, the bastion of slavery, secession and segregation.
Jim Crow voted a straight Democratic ticket.
Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, founding fathers of the party, were slave owners, as were James Madison and James Monroe, who succeeded Jefferson in the White House. And so were John Tyler and James K. Polk, who succeeded them.
Washington, a slave owner, was the Father of our Country and gave us our independence and a new nation from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Jefferson executed the Louisiana Purchase. Jackson seized Florida. Tyler annexed Texas. Polk got us the Southwest, California and clear title to Washington and Oregon. All were slave owners — and also the Democrats who gave America almost all of her land and frontiers.
The first Democratic president of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, restored segregation to the U.S. government. The second, FDR, chose a segregationist vice president, “Cactus Jack” Garner, put a Klansman, Hugo Black, on the Supreme Court, and, with Wilson, carried all 11 segregated states of the Old Confederacy, all six times they ran.
To hold a segregated South against Eisenhower in 1952, liberal Adlai Stevenson continued the Southern strategy by putting on his ticket John Sparkman of Alabama. Returning to the Senate after Adlai’s defeat, Sparkman signed the Dixie Manifesto and opposed the civil rights acts of both 1964 and 1965.
On his second run for the presidency over a decade ago, Joe Biden joked of his home state: “Delaware … was a slave state that fought beside the North. That’s only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.”
The Warren Rule notwithstanding, Southern segregationists remain honored today. The Old Senate Office Building was renamed in 1972 for Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia and John C. Stennis of Mississippi.