Ahead of South Carolina Vote, Joe Biden Faces Questions Over Claims of Civil Rights Activism

In 1987, Joe Biden said he was a teenage civil rights activist, then said he wasn’t. Now he says he was. Does he have a hazy memory, or is this all malarky?

Vice President Joe Biden, center, leads 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 march from Selma to Montgomery. From left: Selma Mayor George Evans, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Biden, Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
In 2013, then-Vice President Joe Biden marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, between Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton just behind. Photo: Dave Martin/AP

As Joe Biden campaigns in South Carolina, ahead of a primary contest later this month he must win to revive his hopes of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, the former vice president is facing questions over claims that he took part in the civil rights movement as a student in the 1960s.

Shaun King, a prominent surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (and former Intercept columnist), drew attention to Biden’s often confusing and at times contradictory statements about what role he played as a young man in the struggle for racial equality in his home state of Delaware.

As King noted in his newsletter, during Biden’s first run for the presidency, in 1987, the then-senator frequently described himself as a teenage civil rights activist, only to withdraw those claims later. More than three decades later, having served under the first black president, Biden seems to have reversed himself again, and now describes himself as a participant in desegregation protests in his youth.

In King’s account of Biden’s career, he highlights numerous inconsistencies in the former vice president’s recent claims that he was involved in the struggle to desegregate movie theaters and restaurants in Delaware in the 1960s, and accuses him of lying to curry favor with black voters. As King has also noted, there are photographs and film clips of Sanders participating in civil rights protests and sit-ins from the same period.

Biden’s campaign insists that the attack is unfounded, pointing to testimony from old friends who say that he took part in at least two protests against segregation as a young man: walking out of a diner in Wilmington, Delaware in 1961 that refused to serve a black classmate, and then picketing the segregated Rialto movie theater in 1962.

“Advancing civil rights and overthrowing systemic racism are at the heart of who Joe Biden is,” his campaign’s rapid reaction director Andrew Bates told The Intercept. “The Vice President is proud that he protested in favor of desegregating the Rialto in 1962.”

In previous statements, Biden and a former Delaware state president of the NAACP who backs his account, Richard “Mouse” Smith, both claimed that they protested outside the Rialto in 1965. Smith told the Washington Post last year that picketing the Rialto in 1965 with him was Biden’s first civil rights protest. In an interview with The Intercept this week, Smith attributed his haziness about the dates to his present age, 71.

Bates said that the former vice president, who is now 77, had also mixed up the dates. “As often happens when people are recalling events from over 50 years ago, sometimes the precise date has been off, but what has never changed is his proud participation in this advocacy,” Bates said.

Although King was unable to produce conclusive proof that Biden did not protest outside the movie theater, he highlighted obvious contradictions and errors in the former vice president’s at times confusing account of his activities in the 1960s which leave plenty of room for critics inclined to disbelieve him.

Given the stakes involved — Biden told campaign donors in New York on Thursday that he is relying on South Carolina’s African American community to deliver him the win he needs to get back in the race against Sanders — it is worth tracing the contours of Biden’s claims as they have changed over the years.

The controversy began in 1987, when Biden launched his first bid for the presidency with a call for a return to the idealism of the ’60s — casting himself, at the age of 44, as a member of a generation that had changed America through its activism. That appeal was frequently punctuated by apparent recollections of his personal involvement in anti-segregation protests.

“The vision that I proclaim here today is not some pipe dream or mere romanticism; it’s nothing less than a legacy of our generation,” Biden told delegates to the California Democratic Convention on February 3, 1987. “When I was 17 years old, like many of you, I participated in sit-ins to desegregate the restaurants and movie houses of Wilmington, Delaware.”

“In our youth, we changed America,” Biden said, reading from a script crafted for him by his strategist Pat Caddell. “When we marched, we did not march for a 14-point program and a white paper; we marched to change attitudes, whether it was to civil rights, or women’s rights, or the environment, or our culture, or the ending of the war in Vietnam. We profoundly altered the face of this nation.” The goal of his candidacy, he said, was to inspire collective action. “Not the election of me; the election of we.”

By the time he got to New Hampshire three weeks later, however, Biden had begun to personalize the achievements of his generation that Caddell’s script had cast in more general terms. “The way this country has always been moved to great things is by passion and commitment,” the candidate told students at St. Paul’s School in Concord. “When I marched in the civil rights movement, I did not march with a 12-point program; I marched with tens of thousands of others to change attitudes, and we changed attitudes.”

Biden’s aides tried, unsuccessfully, to nudge him back on script, reminding him that he had not, personally, marched, the journalist Richard Ben Cramer later reported in his 1992 book about the campaign, “What It Takes.” According to Cramer, Biden’s advisers later told him that the candidate would acknowledge the error each time he was reminded of it — and then frequently repeat it on the campaign trail.

Cramer noted in the introduction to his book, an exhaustive look at six of the leading campaigns for the Democratic nomination in 1988, that he had rechecked the details of every conversation he reported between a campaign adviser and a candidate with the participants before publication. Far from disputing Cramer’s reporting, Biden later praised his work as “sharp and insightful” when the journalist died in 2013.

“I came out of the civil rights movement,” the candidate told supporters at a small gathering in Claremont, New Hampshire, in April 1987. “I was one of those guys that sat in and marched and all that stuff.”

But at a news conference in Washington that September, Biden seemed to retract all claims to have had a personal role in the civil rights movement. “During the 1960s, I was in fact very concerned about the civil rights movement,” Biden said. “I was not an activist. I worked at an all-black swimming pool in the east side of Wilmington, Delaware. I was involved in what they were thinking, what they were feeling. I was involved, but I was not out marching. I was not down in Selma, I was not anywhere else. I was a suburbanite kid who got a dose of exposure to what was happening to black Americans in my own city.”

“I was involved, but I was not out marching. I was not down in Selma, I was not anywhere else,” Biden said in 1987.

A spokesperson for Biden’s campaign argued to The Intercept this week that this statement was not, as it seemed, a full retraction of the candidate’s previous claims, but instead an attempt to clarify that he was never on the front lines of major civil rights marches.

A week later, on September 23, 1987, Biden dropped out of the race with his credibility in tatters, following the revelations that he had quoted, without attribution, a rousing autobiographical speech by the British Labour Leader Neil Kinnock at a debate in Iowa, and from Robert F. Kennedy during his address to the convention in California, and had been accused of plagiarism in law school.

In Biden’s memoir “Promises to Keep,” released in 2007 as he prepared to run for the presidency again, he recalled that the plagiarism scandal had prompted a spiral of doubts from reporters about even the truthfulness of stories he told about his youth. “Reporters were asking if I’d really been part of a group who objected to the treatment of a black high school teammate who could not get served at a Wilmington restaurant,” Biden wrote, “and if I’d really supported an effort to desegregate a downtown movie theater.”

But nowhere in that memoir did Biden mention having actually participated in the civil rights movement as a student. He did describe what he learned about race from a summer job in 1962, when he was the only white lifeguard at a public pool in a predominantly black section of Wilmington. Over lunch, and during basketball games after work, Biden wrote, his black co-workers told him about the impact of racism on their lives.

“Sometimes,” Biden wrote, “my friends would tell me about being forced to sit in the balconies at the segregated movie theaters downtown.” Those conversations, Biden observed, reinforced the “dramatic lessons” he absorbed daily “about segregation and civil rights from newspapers and television.”

Given that the memoir describes his time in high school and college in detail, it seems odd that Biden failed to make any mention at all of what he now describes as formative experiences: the picketing of the segregated Rialto movie theater and attending civil rights organizing sessions at Rev. Otis Herring’s Union Baptist Church. Asked about the discrepancy, Bates, Biden’s spokesperson, argued that the book was written as something of a manifesto for his 2007 campaign and was not intended to be an exhaustive autobiography.

Biden’s second run for the presidency lasted only a few months longer than his first, ending after the 2008 Iowa caucuses, but his final debate appearance produced a striking moment. Biden was asked by the moderator to respond to criticism that comments he had made about one of his rivals, then-Sen. Barack Obama, being “clean and articulate” were racially insensitive.

Biden responded by repeating his frequent claim that he was inspired to enter politics by the struggle for racial equality. “I got involved in politics because of the civil rights movement,” Biden said. He then pointed to his strong support from black voters in Delaware, and his legislative achievements, like co-sponsoring a renewal of the Voting Rights Act. “No one who knows me in my state, no one who I’ve worked with in the United States Congress,” Biden said, “has ever wondered about my commitment to civil rights.”

Obama, at the podium next to Biden, stepped in to vouch for the character of the man he would later choose to be his vice president. “I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he’s made with respect to racial equality in this country,” Obama said. “I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America.”

As Obama’s vice president, Biden referred on at least five occasions to having played some role in the civil rights movement.

In 2010, he told his biographer Jules Witcover that the movement had shaped his political consciousness. “I was always the kid in high school to get into arguments about civil rights,” Biden said in an interview. “I didn’t do any big deal, but I marched a couple of times to desegregate the movie theaters in downtown Wilmington.”

Witcover reported that Mike Fay, who played high school football with Biden, was present when the team decided to walk out of the Charcoal Pit, a Wilmington diner, when they discovered that their only black teammate, Frank Hutchins, was not allowed to sit with them in 1961. Fay did not recall whose idea it was to leave, but Biden cast himself in the leading role when he told a more dramatic version of the same story to a reporter from the Wilmington News Journal in 1982.

“I organized a civil rights boycott because they wouldn’t serve black kids. One of our football players was black, and we went there and they said they wouldn’t serve him. And I said to the others, ‘Hey, we can’t go in there.’ So we all left,” Biden told the newspaper. “It was very brief and not nasty. My clear intent was to boycott. I recall shortly after that they started serving black people.”

Hutchins, who was the first black student to attend Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, initially disputed Biden’s account of the incident, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer in September 1987 that he thought Biden was unaware that he had not been allowed into the restaurant. A few days later, Hutchins retracted those doubts, telling the Wilmington News Journal that Biden’s recollection was probably correct.

Witcover’s biography of Biden makes no mention of him joining in any civil rights protests while he was a student at the University of Delaware, from 1961 to 1965, or in law school at Syracuse University, from 1965 to 1968.

But speaking at a 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Girard College in Philadelphia, Biden said that in August of 1965, when King addressed a protest outside the gates of the school to demand its desegregation, he was in nearby Delaware, “smitten by Dr. King and working in my little way in the civil rights movement — in the segregated movie theaters in my state.”

“I can remember, as a kid in Wilmington, Delaware, working on the east side in 1965 when a guy named Martin Luther King was standing outside the gates of this college, 47 years ago,” Biden added, according to a White House transcript. “I was not with him outside the gates. I was outside the Rialto Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.”

In fact, the picketing of the segregated Rialto theater took place more than two years earlier, lasting from November 1962 until May 1, 1963, when the theater owner relented and agreed to admit black patrons. Delaware’s General Assembly outlawed segregation in public accommodations later that year, with the legislation being signed into law by Gov. Elbert Carvel on Dec. 18, 1963.

In November 1962, a group of mainly white protesters began a five-month campaign of picketing outside the Rialto Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, to demand an end to segregation.

In an address to the NAACP in the summer of 2012, Biden recalled sitting with Richard “Mouse” Smith, a former gang member who became the organization’s Delaware state president, in a black church “talking about desegregating the Rialto and the Queen movie theaters.” The two men met as teenagers in 1962 when Biden took his summer job as a lifeguard at the Prices Run swimming pool in East Wilmington. By that time, the Queen movie theater had been desegregated for 11 years, according to Michael Nazarewycz’s “Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware.”

The Biden campaign now says that he only took part in protests against segregation of the Rialto, and any references to other theaters was in error.

Smith said in an interview with The Intercept that he did take part in the picketing of the Rialto, even though he was only 13 years old when the campaign began, and that Biden also protested. Smith also said that he did attend discussions of civil rights at various black churches in Delaware with Biden, but it seems unlikely that any of those were about planning the picketing of the Rialto, since that campaign was led by a white clergyman.

Contemporary newspaper accounts covering the picketing of the Rialto reported that it was organized by Rev. Albert Dreisbach Jr., the 29-year-old white canon of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John, whose ecumenical Concerned Citizens group planned its protests at the all-white Hanover Presbyterian Church and the Quaker Friends Meeting House in Wilmington. On the first day of picketing, most of the 18 protesters were white, the Wilmington News Journal reported.

A Dec. 8, 1962, News Journal report said attendance had swelled to 180 in the second month of the Rialto protests, and noted that the crowd was “predominantly white, middle class and professional.”

Three years later, in 1966, Dreisbach garnered national attention when he fasted with a black colleague to protest the segregation of the Episcopal-affiliated Lovett School in Atlanta, a protest that was backed by King.

Thomas Newlon, an environmental lawyer in Seattle who took part in the picketing of the Rialto as a 10-year-old — his mother, a civic activist named Martha Hart Newlon, brought her children with her to picket the theater — confirmed in an email to The Intercept that all of the protesters when he was there were white. At a later stage of the campaign, black protesters, including foreign students from Africa attending a nearby college, took a leading role. Newlon said that he has no recollection of seeing Biden on the picket line, but because the protest lasted for more than five months, and Biden was then an unknown 19-year-old, it is possible that he attended at some stage.

The picketing of the theater was certainly in the news during Biden’s sophomore year at the University of Delaware. The Nov. 30, 1962, edition of the school’s weekly student newspaper even included a call for students to join in the protest, along with Rev. Dreisbach’s phone number.

Another University of Delaware student at the time, Betsy Marston, was a member of a group called the Student Committee Against Discrimination. Marston and a group of white and black activists were arrested at a diner in Dover, the state capital, in 1962 while protesting its segregation. She said in a phone interview this week that while Biden was not part of her circle, there were so many different anti-segregation protests happening at the time that she was not aware of them all.

Marston, a white student who was bailed out of jail by the black community, said that she was not even aware of the fact that the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, was also running a project to challenge segregation of restaurants along Route 40 in Delaware at the same that her campus group was active. She graduated in 1962, before the Rialto protests, and was unaware of them at the time.

As Obama’s vice president, and now as a candidate for the presidency, Biden consistently cited his personal experience of the struggle for racial equality at civil rights events and while campaigning for votes from the black community.

Speaking in 2013 at a ceremony commemorating the brutal suppression of civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Biden even expressed regret that he did not join the marchers in Selma at the time.

“Oh, I was involved in my state, in a small way, which was still fighting the lingering vestiges of Jim Crow,” Biden said, “but I regret and, although it’s not a part of what I’m supposed to say, apologize it took me 48 years to get here. I should’ve been here. I should’ve been here. It’s one of the regrets that I have, and many of my generation have.”

At a 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Washington organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Biden said again that he had played a small role in the civil rights struggle. “I was no big shakes, reverend, in the civil rights movement — I was just a kid— but I got involved in desegregating movie theaters, and helping — you may remember, Rev. Moyer in Delaware and Herman Holloway organized voter registration drives, coming out of black churches, figuring out how we were going to move.”

Since the Rialto protest was organized by a white Episcopal priest, and his campaign now says that this was the only civil rights protest Biden was involved in as a young man, there is no clear explanation of his repeated references to attending organizing meetings at black churches. It seems possible that Biden is conflating later visits to black churches, after he got involved in politics in the 1970s, with events that took place during the 1960s.

Smith, the former NAACP official, told The Intercept that Biden’s most important contributions to racial justice in Delaware had come behind closed doors, after he first won elective office in the 1970s.

Still, at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast last year, Biden told another version of the same story. “In October, I was invited to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to receive the Freedom Award,” Biden said, “a thing, when I sat in black churches in the east side of Wilmington getting ready to — and by the way, next to two Jewish rabbis — getting ready to go out and desegregate movie theaters in Delaware, I never, ever thought in my life I would be worthy of and I’m still not sure I’m worthy of it.”

While it is unclear which rabbis Biden was referring to, it is true that Jews took part in the effort to desegregate the Rialto. A report from the Wilmington News Journal in December 1962 noted that the participants were “Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Unitarian, Jew, Episcopalian, humanist.”

At a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, on Dec. 5, Biden once again stressed that his career in public life began in an unknown black church in Delaware. “I got my education, Rev. Doc, in the black church — not a joke — because when we used to get organized on Sundays to go out and desegregate movie theaters and things like that, we’d do it through the black church.”

“When I was a teenager in Delaware, for real, I got involved in the civil rights movement,” Biden told congregants at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, last month. “I’d go to Rev. Herring’s church, where we’d meet in order to organize and figure where we were going to go, whether we were going to desegregate the Rialto movie theater or what we were going to do. I got my education, for real, in the black church.”

Like many of the 1960s Delaware civil rights leaders Biden cites as key influences on his outlook, Rev. Otis Herring, a blind preacher and activist, is now dead. When he passed away in 1996, Biden asked for time on the Senate floor to mourn “the loss of a friend and mentor, whose example made better people and a better community out of all of us.”

Back in South Carolina, there are signs that Biden’s support among black voters, who make up about 60 percent of the Democratic electorate, is beginning to slip away.

On the heels of a new national poll that showed Biden dropping from the first choice of 49 percent of black voters last month to just 27 percent this month, following his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, supporters of his rivals say that his support in South Carolina could crater before the state votes in two weeks. “Joe Biden wasn’t selected as a running mate for Barack Obama because he was a civil rights activist,” JA Moore, a state representative from Charleston, South Carolina, who attended a Biden event on Tuesday told the New York Times. “It was because he was a safe white choice.”

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