John Lewis Defends Joe Biden: Segregationist Remarks Were Not ‘Offensive’

Vice President Joe Biden embraces U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as they prepare to lead a group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Sunday, March 3, 2013. They were commemorating the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when police officers beat marchers when they crossed the bridge on a …
AP Photo/Dave Martin

Veteran civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) joined the chorus of prominent black lawmakers on Friday, defending former Vice President Joe Biden amid fierce backlash over his praise of segregationist senators.

“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis told reporters. “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”:

The longtime lawmaker added, “We never gave up on our fellow human beings, and I will not give up on any human being.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), the highest-ranking African American on Capitol Hill, has also sided with Biden, telling Politico, “I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life. You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.”

Additionally, House Democrat Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said he concurred with the spirit of the former vice president’s remarks. “I disagree with the overwhelming items that have come out of the mouth of Donald J. Trump. But we managed to work together with his administration to enact historic criminal justice reform,” he stated.

“I think we here in the House Democratic Caucus have ourselves taken the position that sometimes you have to work with the opposition to the extent they’re in power without compromising your values if you can get things done.”

Lewis’s remarks come as Biden is dismissing calls to apologize for saying that the Senate “got things done” with “civility” even when the body included segregationists with whom he disagreed.

His rivals for the 2020 nomination have roundly criticized the former vice president’s comments. However, Biden did not back down Wednesday and was particularly defiant in the face of criticism from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who said the former vice president should apologize.

In response, Biden said Booker should apologize because the senator “should know better” than to question Biden’s commitment to civil rights.

“There’s not a racist bone in my body,” he declared. “I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career.”

Booker replied to the frontrunner’s remark in a CNN interview, saying, “I was raised to speak truth to power and that I shall never apologize for doing that. And Vice President Biden shouldn’t need this lesson.”

At a New York fundraiser Tuesday, Biden pointed to two long-dead segregationist senators, James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA), to argue that Washington functioned more smoothly a generation ago than under today’s “broken” hyperpartisanship.

“We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden said of the two men, who were prominent lawmakers when Biden was elected in 1972. Biden described Talmadge as “one of the meanest guys [he] ever knew” and said Eastland called him “son,” though not “boy,” a reference to the racist language many whites used to address black men at the time.

Yet even in that Senate, Biden said, “at least there was some civility. We got things done.”

This is becoming one of the most intense disputes of the primary, showing the hazards for Biden as he tries to turn his decades of Washington experience into an advantage. Instead, he is infuriating Democrats who say he is out of step with the diverse party of the 21st century and potentially undermining his argument that he is the most electable candidate to take on President Donald Trump.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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