Former Vice President Joe Biden defended his record on busing black students and desegregation Friday, after a contentious exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris at the Democratic debate the night before.
“These rights are not up to the states to decide,” Biden said at a labor luncheon for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “That’s always been my position.”
Biden’s record in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s has come under increasing scrutiny in recent days after Biden noted his history of cooperating with segregationist senators on certain matters, including in opposition to federal busing policies that had been intended to end de facto segregation in schools.
During the debate, Biden accused the California senator of mischaracterizing his position. “I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden responded to Harris. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
Whether intended or not, Biden’s statement echoed segregationists’ own claims that states’ rights should supersede federal law on matters of segregation. On Friday, Biden said that was not his position.
“We all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifelong commitment to civil rights,” said Biden, who spoke while reading TelePrompters during the convention held at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters.
After Biden left without taking questions from the audience or reporters, Tracy McLemore, 52, a volunteer for the Rainbow PUSH group, said in an interview that she had already decided to vote for Biden and the busing controversy hadn’t changed that.
“We’ve all done things in the past that we’re not proud of,” said McLemore, who noted she had been bused as a child when she lived in the suburbs of Chicago. “I believe Barack Obama would not have chosen him” if Biden were a racist, she said.
She added that she thinks Biden is still the candidate most likely to beat President Trump. “Donald Trump is intimidated by Joe Biden.”
Henry Singleton, a labor organizer for the SEIU Local 1199 from Harlem, could also speak from personal experience: He grew up under Jim Crow laws in Montgomery, Ala., and remembers marching with his grandmother in the civil rights movement when he was 13 years old.
“Listening to the debate, it brought me back to a lot of struggles,” Singleton said, emotion flickering over his face. “I think Kamala Harris did extremely well.”
He called the senator a “star shining” who was providing inspiration for women and girls, black and white, across the U.S.
But Singleton is still all-in for Biden.
“I think he’s the right candidate for the job,” Singleton said, adding of the other candidates: “I don’t feel any of them is strong enough to beat Donald Trump.” He includes Harris in that assessment, even though he’s proud to see her running for president. Referring to the women in the presidential race, he added, “I see what they did to Hillary Clinton.”
Biden’s busing controversy “will not take away from the black vote,” Singleton predicted. “I give praises to Mr. Biden. Whatever happened last night, I hope he presses on and does his thing.”
Before the event, Jackson, a veteran civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, said on CNN that he believed Biden had been “on the wrong side of history” on the busing issue.