Joe Biden praised a long-time segregationist as a “man of character and courage” on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1988.
Biden made the remarks upon the decision of the late Sen. John Stennis (D-MS) to retire after more than 40 years in Congress.
“To think that I would be one day on the floor of the United States Senates, being paid such accolades by such a man of character and courage as John Stennis is beyond my wildest dreams,” Biden said. “And I mean that sincerely”:
Stennis, who served in the Senate from 1947 to 1989, was an ardent segregationist well-known for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later attempts to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday.
The decades-old speech comes to light as Biden is embroiled in controversy after praising the “civility” of two other fervent segregationists, the late-Sens. James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA), at a fundraiser on Tuesday.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden told donors, with an exaggerated Southern drawl. “He never called me boy; he always called me son.”
“Well, guess what?” he continued. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But 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.”
Although less vocal on civil rights than segregationist Democrats like Eastland and Talmadge, Stennis was a primary backer of The Southern Manifesto, a document crafted in opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
For years, Biden has fondly recalled the story of how Stennis gifted him the very table upon which the Manifesto was signed, upon his retirement from the Senate. He has also frequently cited Stennis as a strong influence during the formative years of his political career.
The strong feelings between the two men were on display in 1985. Biden, who then was weighing his first presidential run, took time off from the deliberations to travel to Mississippi and pay tribute to Stennis on his 84th birthday.
In a speech that would be widely criticized by African American leaders in the lead-up to the 1988 presidential race, Biden hailed Stennis as a mentor and friend from his very first day in the Senate. He even praised the man who had once defended segregation as a beacon of honor and “integrity,” comparing him to the likes of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
“When you stand on the floor of the Senate and you point that finger and you raise your voice, it’s like a bolt from a clear sky, and when you speak, everyone listens,” Biden said. “As all of my colleagues have said here today, and you’ll hear others say more of, he truly does stand like a stone wall; he is the rockbound integrity of the United States Congress.”
Biden made similar comments about Stennis while campaigning for president in Mississippi during the 2008 election cycle, saying he was a “hell of a guy.”