Rep. Bobby Rush issued a scathing rebuke of Joe Biden on Friday, calling him “woefully ignorant” of the black American experience, as the former vice president confronts a growing backlash over his comments about working alongside fervent segregationists.
Rush, a high-profile activist during the height of the civil rights movement, told POLITICO in an exclusive statement that Biden’s remarks at a New York fundraiser earlier this week were “wholly out of touch.”
“You would think that after eight years of serving as Vice President under President Obama, Biden would get it, that his frame of reference would be more audacious for the future and less on the obvious incrementalism of the past,” Rush said. “With his statement he has demonstrated that he is wholly out of touch and woefully ignorant of the nuances of the black American experience and that is, in itself, beyond disappointing.”
Biden’s campaign declined to comment and instead pointed to the numerous black lawmakers standing by him, including the congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
The controversy began after Biden talked about his productive work in the Senate with James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia — both known segregationists.
“At least there was some civility,” Biden said of that era and his work with Eastland and Talmadge. Biden also recalled that Eastland “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
Biden has not apologized for his remarks and stirred up more controversy when attempting to address criticism from his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“Instead of being a bold agent of change — one who will fight to dismantle the remaining vestiges of segregation and other aspects of racial discrimination — he remains focused on an unacceptable pronounced ideology of racial incrementalism,” Rush continued. “It’s shocking, sad, and troubling that Biden just don’t get it. In the minds of die-hard segregationists, President Obama was — and will always be — a ‘boy’ to them and never ‘son.’”
Biden’s remarks about “son” and “boy” drew the sharpest rebuke from one of his Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is black.
Booker called on Biden to apologize for “praising segregationists.” Biden said he wasn’t praising racists, doesn’t “have a racist bone in my body” and called on Booker to apologize instead.
Later Wednesday, Biden called Booker to talk about the matter and quell tensions. But Booker still wanted an apology and his campaign said it felt subsequently burned by Biden after his campaign leaked details of the call, which the sitting senator thought was confidential.
But a number of Congressional Black Caucus members have rushed to Biden’s defense since Tuesday night, arguing that Biden meant well and that his calls for a return to a more civil discourse are needed.
On Friday, Lewis joined those supporting Biden.
“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis (D-Ga.) told reporters, recalling the distasteful people he’s worked alongside. “During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us, and arrested us and jailed us.”
In the immediate aftermath of Biden’s remarks, a number of Black Caucus members, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and House Democratic Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), backed the former vice president.
“I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said of the infamous segregationist.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, the co-chair of Biden’s campaign and a former leader of the CBC, said the controversy was created by the media and social media. Biden huddled with CBC members Thursday evening amid the backlash. But the meeting was scheduled before Biden made the remarks and members were discussing criminal justice reform.
Rush has been one of the few CBC lawmakers, outside of Booker, to directly and repeatedly blast Biden. The day after the former senator’s remarks, Rush told POLITICO that Biden needed to be more “deliberate” in his attempts to be inclusive. But Rush’s statement on Friday went further in condemning Biden.
The former vice president’s working relationship with segregationists has been no secret. Before and after he announced his candidacy in late April, Biden would mention as a point of pride how he worked with Dixiecrat senators like Eastland, Talmadge, North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who held a record for filibustering civil rights legislation.
Throughout, Biden and his campaign have maintained that he worked with the segregationists only because he had to in order to do the business of a legislator, that he never supported segregation, and that he had successfully advocated for civil rights on the campaign trail and in Congress.
Biden, however, has downplayed the warm relations he had with those senators. He gave a eulogy for Thurmond that, in the eyes of critics, glossed over his racist record.
Biden also had a closer relationship with Eastland than his recent statements suggest. The Washington Post and CNN reported that before he entered the U.S. Senate, Biden in 1972 courted Eastland, according to letters provided by the University of Mississippi, which has an archive of Eastland’s papers. Biden also enlisted Eastland’s help in opposing busing policies designed to bring about school integration.
“I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote,” Biden wrote on June 30, 1977.
Biden’s opposition to busing at the time earned him attention for being a “young liberal against busing,” according to the headline of an Oct. 12, 1975, Philadelphia Inquirer article that historian and author Rick Perlstein posted on his Twitter page Thursday. In the article, Biden made favorable comments about the populism of yet another segregationist, Alabama’s George Wallace, whom Biden has compared to President Donald Trump in recent months on the campaign trail.
“I think I’ve made it possible for liberals to come out of the closet. ... If it isn’t yet a respectable liberal position, it is no longer a racist one,” Biden said, according to the article. “I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace … someone who’s not afraid to stand up and offend people, someone who wouldn’t pander, but would say what the American people know in their gut is right.”