President Joe Biden became agitated during his marathon press conference last week when asked about his remarks from an earlier speech comparing political opponents to George Wallace, Bull Connor, and Jefferson Davis.
“Anybody who listened to the speech — I did not say that they were going to be a George Wallace or a Bull Connor,” Biden snapped at a reporter. “I said we’re going to have a decision in history that is going to be marked just like it was then. You either voted on the side — that didn’t make you a George Wallace or didn’t make you a Bull Connor. But if you did not vote for the Voting Rights Act back then, you were voting with those who agreed with Connor, those who agreed with — with—and so…”
So Biden’s clarification didn’t seem to be that far from what he said in the Atlanta remarks. Those who side with him are on the side of two civil rights icons, the Rev. Martin Luther King and former Congressman John Lewis, and former President Abraham Lincoln, while those not voting with him were on the side of Wallace, a former Alabama Democrat governor; Connor, the former Democrat commissioner of public safety in Birmingham; and (in the Atlanta speech) Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, also a Democrat.
“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden asked in Atlanta. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
The irony is that during his four decades in politics, Biden has very transparently sided with Wallace and Davis. To his credit, he never once defended Connor. He also repeatedly referred to his own state’s abhorrent racial past in less than negative terms.
Before looking at examples, an important fact check is that the current debate is over two bills that have nothing to do with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One bill would require universal mail-in voting, automatic voter registration, and new redistricting laws. Another bill increases Justice Department’s veto power over state election laws. That’s in sharp contrast to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that banned poll taxes, literacy tests, and other blatantly racist tactics that had been used in southern states.
Here’s a factual look at Biden’s attitude toward Jim Crow politicians over the decades.
Joe Biden: Praising and Touting Praise From George Wallace
Biden ran for president for the first time in 1988, failing to win the Democratic Party nomination. But along the way, he campaigned down south. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sept. 20, 1987, on Biden.
“For Biden, the problem is that he has presented inconsistent images of himself at different times and places,” the 1987 Inquirer story said, before noting comments Biden made against racist politicians, including Wallace in years past. It then said, “But campaigning in Alabama in April, Biden talked of his sympathy for the South; bragged of an award he had received from George Wallace in 1973 and said ‘we (Delawareans) were on the South’s side in the Civil War.’”
Delaware was a Union state during the Civil War, but more on that later.
The Detroit Free Press also reported during Biden’s first presidential run, “Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, for example, tells southerners that the lower half of his state is culturally part of Dixie; he reminds them that former Alabama Gov. George Wallace praised him as one of the outstanding young politicians of America.”
The award and praise from Wallace appear to have been a Jaycees event in Mobile, Alabama where a recently elected Biden attended and Wallace spoke.
It was the Philadelphia Inquirer that reported on Oct. 12, 1975, that Biden said, “I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace – someone who is not afraid to stand up, who wouldn’t pander, but would say what the American people know in their gut is right,” Biden said.
Three years after Wallace gave an award to Biden, he entered the 1976 Democratic presidential primary. Importantly, Biden told a gathering in Delaware, “If Wallace got the nomination, I would support the Republican nominee, if it was Gerald Ford.”
Though, a decade later, he boasted about Wallace.
Wallace is best known for his 1963 inaugural address as governor, asserting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He later stood in the doorway of a University of Alabama building to prevent integration. Wallace ran as a third-party presidential candidate in 1968 but sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1964, 1972, and 1976.
Joe Biden: Voting for Jefferson Davis
In the Atlanta speech, Biden asked, “Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
In a 1977 vote, Biden literally sided with Jefferson Davis—though it had nothing to do with siding against Lincoln.
As a senator, facing re-election the next year, Biden voted to posthumously restore citizenship to Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.
Biden voted for Davis citizenship in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation, with a statement that said Davis “had served the United States long and honorably as a soldier, Member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship was restored in 1976. It is fitting that Jefferson Davis should no longer be singled out for punishment.”
‘You Don’t Know My State’
Apparently looking for a way to try to prove Delaware was mainstream America and not some northeastern elitist bastion, Biden noted the ugly racial past during his campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
As mentioned before, he claimed Delaware was on the South’s side in the Civil War. By late 2006, when making an early campaign stop in Columbia, S.C., he acknowledged that it was a Union state.
He told the crowd his home state of Delaware was a “slave state that fought beside the North. That’s only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.”
It was a joke, but some political careers have been upended by jokes.
During an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Biden said: “You don’t know my state. … My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country. My state is anything from a Northeast liberal state.”
That didn’t keep the eventual nominee – who Biden called the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Barack Obama, from picking him as his running mate in 2008.
‘At Least There Was Some Civility’ Joe Biden and Senate Colleagues
Along the way, Biden eulogized two repentant segregationist senators, Strom Thurmond; a Democrat-turned-Republican from South Carolina, and Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia and former high ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Though not all of Joe Biden’s Senate pals were as repentant.
Sen. John C. Stennis, D-Miss., “offers no apologies for once fighting the lost racial causes of his beloved Mississippi,” The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported after a 1988 interview. Biden had mostly fawning praise for Stennis at his colleague’s August 1985 birthday party in DeKalb, Mississippi, comparing Stennis to Stonewall Jackson.
“He’s an opponent without hate, a friend without treachery, a statesman without pretense, a victim without any murmuring, a public official without vice, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor, as you all know, without hypocrisy, a man without guilt,” Biden said. “A senator whom future senators can study with profit for as long as there is in America.”
Well, it could be said those were different times—1977, 1985, 1987, even 2006.
But in the summer of 2019 when Joe Biden was getting his campaign revved up, he talked about his friendships with segregationist Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmudge of Georgia.
He worked with the two senators in the 1970s on anti-busing legislation, an issue that emerged in the first primary debate of 2019 when then-Sen. Kamala Harris of California had the famous, “That little girl was me” line.
Notably, Biden talked about his alliance with the segregationist Democrats in the context of “civility” and working with folks you disagree with.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” then-candidate Biden told a gathering of donors. “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”
“A guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well, guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden continued at the fundraising event. “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.”
Biden ultimately apologized for his talk of Eastland and Talmudge, though in a somewhat defensive way. “Was I wrong a few weeks ago? Yes, I was. I regret it, and I’m sorry for any of the pain of misconception that caused anybody,” Biden said, adding, “I’m going to let my record stand for itself and not be distorted or smeared.”
No one should try to presume ill motives about Joe Biden’s own heart regarding race. But in light of the president’s rhetorical bombs comparing opponents with known racist politicians, and his consistent reference to so-called “Jim Crow 2.0,” it is notable that he spent much of his career cozy with politicians who openly embraced Jim Crow 1.0.
Fred Lucas is chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal and the author of “Abuse of Power: Inside The Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump.”