Former Vice President Joe Biden told black leaders to “move beyond” the issue of busing to desegregate public schools ahead of his first presidential run.
Biden, who is facing controversy for praising segregationists, made the comments during a July 1986 speech to the NAACP’s annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, Biden was a 43-year-old U.S. Senator from Delaware with a somewhat controversial record on busing. He appeared in front of the NAACP because he was planning to run for president in 1988, something he confirmed privately to the group’s leadership, and was hoping to garner support.
Biden began his remarks by telling those in attendance he wasn’t going to mince words about the state of the civil rights movement.
“I come today not to seek your approval, but to tell you what’s on my mind,” Biden said, adding that some of those in attendance “might not like all” he had to say.
“The bitter, but the honest truth is that for a decade our cause has been stalling,” he said. “We all know in our hearts that we’ve made some mistakes. For when our priorities were access, accommodation, education, and voting we triumphed. All America stood with us.”
Biden said the situation, however, had changed dramatically in the last decade and many, including himself, “allowed the agenda to drift from these goals.”
“Busing and quotas became the priorities and our enemies on the right used these initiatives to regain the initiative,” he said. “To the nation, they cast the civil rights debate in terms of black children being able to move ahead only if white children were forced to slide behind.”
Citing affirmative action, busing, and preferential hiring practices, Biden said the “right” had “convinced “the fair minded middle class white” that progress for African Americans only came at their expense.
“With that they drove a wedge — the wedge had been driven, the movement began to stall, and our enemies seized control of the agenda,” he said.
Biden, though, did not address his role in driving that “wedge.” When Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, he surprised many by siding with Southern segregationist Democrats against civil rights advocates on busing.
Biden told a local Delaware newspaper during his first term that busing was “asinine” and he would support a constitutional amendment to ensure it was eliminated. He expressed that busing, if allowed to continue, would only aggravate racial tensions in America.
“The real problem with busing,” he said, is that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school . . . and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”
Biden’s legislative record shows he was a stringent opponent of busing in both a narrow and broad sense. In 1976, Biden supported a law by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, to prohibit federal funds from being used to transport students beyond the school closest to their homes. The following year, he introduced legislation to prohibit the federal government from desegregating schools by redistricting and school “clustering.”
Biden’s biggest contribution, however, was to grant respectability and legitimacy to the case against busing. For most of the late-1960s, the leading voices on the issue were segregationist Southern Democrats like Sen. James Eastland (D-MS), Gov. George Wallace (D-AL), and Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-GA). Even though their arguments were grounded in “states’ rights,” most of the public saw the issue as an extension of segregation. Biden, on the other hand, because he was young, liberal, and not a Southerner, could claim opposition to busing was not influenced by race.
Biden, acknowledged as much during a 1975 interview with National Public Radio in which he discussed the issue.
“I think that part of the reason why much of this has not developed, much of the change has not developed, is because it has been an issue that has been in the hands of the racist,” he said. “We liberals have out-of-hand rejected it because, if George Wallace is for it, it must be bad.”
“And so we haven’t really looked at it,” Biden continued. “Now there’s a confluence of streams. There is academic ferment against it — not majority, but academic ferment against it. There are young blacks and young white leaders against it.”
At the same time Biden was fighting against busing, black leaders within the civil rights movement were on the opposite side.
Instead of addressing that history, however, Biden told the NAACP in 1986 it was not necessary to dwell on past divisions.
“We need not deal with our mistakes of the past or our past differences,” he said. “Whatever our past differences, we all know they were disagreements over tactics, not over principles.”
Biden, who just a few months prior had downplayed his stance on civil rights when courting voters in Alabama, urged the black leaders in attendance to “move beyond” issues like busing and confront more imminent challenges.
“As we assemble here today, it seems to me that now we must move beyond our past mistakes and disagreements to confront the great danger that looms before us.”
That “danger,” according to Biden, came from “extremists” in the the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan.
“We in the room are all allies, engaged in all out of warfare with the right wing in this country,” he said. “Extremists who intend not merely to end the gains made by the civil rights in education, in housing, in voting, and in public accommodation. And the gains we were beginning to make on the greater equal economic opportunity questions.”
“These right wingers intend not just to slow down our progress, they mean to end it, to reverse it,” he added.
Biden proceeded to accuse the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan of “waging a permanent… assault on the values and programs of a just America.” Through “executive fiat” and “packing the courts with ideological robots,” Biden said the president was working to dismantle civil rights.
“This is not a disagreement on tactics, this is not a disagreement on the fringes, this is not about whether or not you’re for or against busing, this is about whether you’d be allowed to get on any bus,” he said. “These guys are playing for keeps and they mean it.”
The 1986 speech comes into the spotlight after Biden faced criticism for his stance on busing from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at the first Democrat presidential on Thursday.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” Harris said. “So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.”
Biden tried to defend his record but only ended up inaccurately claiming he never offered praise for racists. On Friday, the former vice president attempted to once again clarify his position on busing and civil rights during a speech in Chicago, Illinois.
“I heard and I listened to and I respect Senator Harris,” Biden said. “But we all know that 30 seconds and 60 seconds on a debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights.”