How Joe Biden Became the Democrats’ Anti-Busing Crusader


With a school desegregation lawsuit roiling Delaware in the 1970s, Mr. Biden led an effort in the Senate to end court-ordered busing.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. outside the Capitol in 1974, when he was a senator from Delaware. He said of busing, “No issue has consumed more of my time and energies.”Credit…CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

By Astead W. Herndon and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

NEWPORT, Del. — In July 1974, with a federal court in Delaware on the verge of ordering busing to integrate Wilmington’s overwhelmingly black public schools, Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived at a school auditorium in this predominantly white suburb to find himself the target of a political ambush.

Just two years after narrowly winning a Senate seat at the age of 29, Mr. Biden had recently cast two votes to protect the practice of busing to achieve desegregation — despite his own very public unease with it. He thought he had come to Newport simply to address a local civics organization. But when he got there, more than 200 people, organized by a largely white parent group that opposed busing, jeered and heckled Mr. Biden, demanding that he more vocally join their cause.

“If you think I’m in trouble with you people,” he said then, seeking to assure the crowd that he was on their side, “you ought to hear what my liberal friends are telling me.”

The meeting marked a turning point for the young senator, who counted himself a liberal Democrat and an ardent defender of civil rights. Not long after that verbal drubbing, Mr. Biden plunged headfirst into one of the most politically fraught and racially divisive topics in America. He emerged as the Democratic Party’s leading anti-busing crusader — a position that put him in league with Southern segregationists, at odds with liberal Republicans and helped change the dynamic of the Senate, turning even some leaders in his own party against busing as a desegregation tool.

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“No issue has consumed more of my time and energies,” Mr. Biden declared with a flourish as he opened a Senate hearing in 1981, adding, “We want to stop court-ordered busing.”

Now, more than four decades later, that vocal advocacy clouds the early stages of Mr. Biden’s 2020 presidential run. In the two weeks since Senator Kamala Harris of California, a rival for the nomination, invoked her own story of being bused to school to forcefully challenge Mr. Biden during the first Democratic presidential debates — and on the heels of criticism of his work with segregationists on crime legislation — Mr. Biden’s standing has dropped among the Democratic electorate, and his status as the race’s early front-runner is freshly threatened as his polling lead among black voters softens.

[Here’s a timeline of Mr. Biden’s history with busing.]

Mr. Biden declined to be interviewed for this article. On Friday, however, his campaign told Politico that Mr. Biden now backs an effort by Democrats in Congress to repeal 1970s-era restrictions on voluntary busing. That is the type of desegregation method Ms. Harris experienced as a child, and Mr. Biden’s position is not a shift: He has never opposed voluntary busing.

During the course of his 36-year Senate career, school desegregation, more than any other issue with the possible exception of crime, crystallized the political and civil rights crosscurrents swirling around Mr. Biden. He arrived in Washington in 1973, having come of age amid the racial ferment of the late 1960s, with deep ties to Wilmington’s black community — relationships rooted in his advocacy for housing integration and other forms of urban aid in a state still grappling with the legacy of Jim Crow.

Mr. Biden has said that his record on school desegregation has been misrepresented, and he maintains that he supported busing as a remedy for the intentionally discriminatory policies that kept white and black students in separate schools in the South — a position his campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, reaffirmed on Sunday in a statement to The Times. But a review of hundreds of pages of congressional records, as well as interviews with education experts and Biden contemporaries in Wilmington and Washington, suggests that his opposition to busing was far more sweeping than he has led voters to believe.

Mr. Biden, center left, and Senator Kamala Harris of California, center right, clashed over his history with busing during the first Democratic presidential debates last month.
Mr. Biden, center left, and Senator Kamala Harris of California, center right, clashed over his history with busing during the first Democratic presidential debates last month.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“I don’t know whether he’s just reconstructed this history in his own mind, but he’s factually untruthful, that’s for sure,” said Gary Orfield, a California professor who has written extensively about school desegregation, including in Wilmington, and who testified before Mr. Biden in 1981. He said that for politicians like Mr. Biden, the busing question was “a real test of conscience and courage. I think he failed.”

Mr. Biden also, more than any other Northern Democrat, adopted the language of conservatives on the issue, using terms like “forced busing” when his fellow liberals would emphasize desegregation, not transportation. Civil rights advocates note that students had, of course, been riding buses to school for decades; opponents of court-ordered busing never raised a ruckus when black children were forced to ride buses miles away from their homes to attend “colored-only” schools.

“I oppose busing,” Mr. Biden said in a lengthy television interview entered into the Congressional Record in 1975. “It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.”

From 1975 until 1982, Mr. Biden — often in partnership with his fellow Delawarean, Senator William Roth, a Republican — promoted nearly a dozen pieces of legislation aimed at placing strict limits on the authority of federal agencies and the courts to mandate busing to achieve racial integration in schools. At a time when busing controversies were provoking racial unrest in cities like Boston, Mr. Biden argued that housing integration — which would take much longer to implement than a busing plan — was a far better way to desegregate public schools.

“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota-systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school,” Mr. Biden told the television interviewer.

“That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with,” he added. “What it says is, in order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son. That’s racist! Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black man or woman can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?”

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education upended the American educational landscape, reversing decades of the “separate but equal” doctrine with its finding that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Mr. Biden was 11 years old and had just moved with his family to Delaware from Scranton, Pa., when the unanimous ruling came down in May 1954.

The case had an immediate impact throughout the country. But it was particularly resonant in Delaware, a state that, while not in the Confederate South, had laws on its books that required its public school pupils to attend segregated schools. A desegregation suit filed in Delaware had been one of five cases the Supreme Court merged in hearing Brown.

The young Mr. Biden was well aware of the effect segregation was having in Wilmington’s black communities. Though he attended Archmere Academy, a private Catholic school in nearby Claymont, his family lived in racially diverse Wilmington, which helped him foster relationships with black residents that were unusually intimate for the time.

“I remember the stories they’d tell about how they were treated by whites day in and day out,” Mr. Biden said in his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep.” “Every day, it seemed to me that black people got subtle and not-so-subtle reminders they didn’t quite belong in America. It was a dozen small cuts a day.”

After the Brown decision, Louis Redding, a black lawyer who had handled the Delaware suit, set out to test the state’s commitment to desegregation. He recruited a group of 11 black students to try to enroll in an all-white high school in Milford, a city south of Wilmington, one of the more conservative areas of the state.

Louis Redding, left, and Thurgood Marshall, center, at the Supreme Court in 1953 for the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Louis Redding, left, and Thurgood Marshall, center, at the Supreme Court in 1953 for the Brown v. Board of Education case.Credit…George Tames/The New York Times

Orlando Camp was one of the so-called “Milford 11.” Mr. Camp, who until then had been bused to an all-black school even farther from his home, said he still remembered the racist vitriol from the all-white crowds in Milford.

“The first day was fine,” Mr. Camp said. “The second day was a little more emotional, because parents were being notified that there were colored kids there for the first time. Then there were phone calls. That’s when all hell broke loose.”

The group lasted 28 days before being forced out.

The episode made clear to Mr. Redding and his allies that, even with the Supreme Court decision on their side, the battle for school integration in Delaware had only begun. The Supreme Court had charged school districts to desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” but the vague terminology allowed districts around the country to slow-walk change.

Still, Delaware appeared to be taking steps forward. In 1967, a segregated high school created for black students in southern Delaware shut its doors.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and Wilmington’s racial complexion, and racial politics, began to shift. Riots erupted; stores were looted, windows smashed with bricks. The state’s Democratic governor sent the National Guard to the city for nine months in the aftermath, imposing curfews on the city’s residents.

Wilmington’s demographics had already begun to change in the late 1950s and 1960s, but the riots and their aftermath accelerated the exodus of white families to the suburbs. In the years after the chaotic summer of 1968, Wilmington became a majority-black city, a rarity in a state that is two-thirds white.

“The riots chased people out of the city,” said James M. Baker, an African-American civil rights activist who would go on to become mayor of Wilmington. “You just had one bad event after the other.”

If school districts around the country were slow to desegregate after the 1954 Brown ruling, the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education hurried things up. The court held that the use of busing as a “remedial technique” was allowable to achieve integration.

However, the justices drew a distinction between Southern-style “de jure” segregation, which resulted from discriminatory policies intended to separate blacks and whites, and “de facto” segregation in the North, which was rooted in neighborhood housing patterns. The ruling only applied, they said, to states that had a history of “de jure” intentional segregation. Delaware was among them.

Not long after the Swann decision, Mr. Redding, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a slew of black and white plaintiffs seized on the new moment in Delaware to reopen a previous desegregation case and argue for a more radical proposal: racial integration through dispersing students throughout the metropolitan district, meaning the city and suburbs.

The case would wind its way through the courts for the next seven years. From the outset, the strategy would divide Wilmington’s black leaders.

Supporters of the lawsuit in Wilmington argued that the schools would never be equal unless they achieved full racial integration, and that busing was the only means to achieve it. Detractors said that, while integration was important, it could be achieved through other, more palatable means, such as public housing in suburbs.

What’s more, black communities had won political power on the Wilmington School Board, and its teachers were well paid. Some community leaders worried about the prospect of reigniting the ugliness they had seen in communities like Milford.

By this time, Mr. Biden had been elected to the New Castle County Council, with expanding public housing in the suburbs a central platform of his campaign. If that advocacy was met with pushback from white residents, Delaware’s black leaders embraced the young politician.

“Joe has always been right in the community with us. I mean, in the black community,” said Maurice Pritchett, a black Wilmington education leader who remembered when a 19-year-old Mr. Biden was the only white lifeguard at a public pool in an African-American neighborhood. “He was always right there. And we accepted him.”

Richard “Mouse” Smith, the longtime president of the Wilmington N.A.A.C.P., has known Mr. Biden since the 1960s, when both were young men interested in politics.

“Joe didn’t choose” the black community, Mr. Smith said. “We chose him.”

The anti-busing fervor sweeping American cities erupted into violence in the fall of 1974, when buses carried black children into white neighborhoods in Boston for the first time. Crowds jeered, throwing bricks and rocks at the buses as terrified students huddled inside. Black children were greeted at school with racial epithets.

A school bus carried black students to a white neighborhood in Boston in 1974. The children were greeted at school with racial epithets.
A school bus carried black students to a white neighborhood in Boston in 1974. The children were greeted at school with racial epithets.Credit…Associated Press

In Washington, busing debates were roiling the Capitol, where Senator Edward Gurney, a conservative Republican from Florida and staunch supporter of President Richard M. Nixon, had made an unsuccessful push to attach an amendment to an education spending bill that would have effectively done away with court-ordered busing.

Two days before the 20th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the debate over the so-called “Gurney amendment” came to the Senate floor. Senator Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican from Massachusetts and the first black senator since Reconstruction, who would go on to become Mr. Biden’s foe in a string of busing debates, warned that the measure would take local school systems “back to the age of Jim Crow.”

It was defeated, 47-46. Mr. Biden — who viewed the amendment as overly broad and unconstitutional — sided with Mr. Brooke, casting the deciding vote. Today, he cites the Gurney vote in defending his record on school desegregation, insisting that he backs busing to eliminate intentional “de jure” segregation, but not “de facto” segregation.

“I’ve always been in favor of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation,” Mr. Biden said recently.

But Professor Orfield, who has done extensive research on the Wilmington school district in his role as co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the de jure-de facto distinction is a canard, because courts did not have authority to order busing unless they found proof of intentional segregation.

Mr. Biden’s Gurney vote did not go over well with the angry crowd that had gathered in the school auditorium to confront him on that July night in 1974, and by the end of that year it seemed the senator’s anti-busing views were hardening.

In a December 1974 speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Biden said he had become “more and more disenchanted with busing as a remedy,” whether or not segregation was intentional. The following year, in the television interview, he said he had “gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.”

Senator Strom Thurmond, the segregationist from South Carolina, was circulating such a proposal. But Mr. Biden opposed Mr. Thurmond’s plan. And, convinced he could achieve his goals legislatively, he never proposed a constitutional amendment of his own.

Back in Delaware, Mr. Redding’s desegregation case was inching its way through the United States District Court. In March 1975, a three-judge panel ruled in a split 2-1 decision that Wilmington’s largely black school district would have to merge with 10 suburban districts with much higher white populations. Eventually, those 11 districts would be sliced up like a pie to accommodate a desegregation plan that employed busing.

Mr. Biden agreed with the dissenting judge and thought the court ruling went overboard. Then he did something that stunned his colleagues: He joined up with Jesse Helms, the segregationist senator from North Carolina, to offer his own anti-busing amendment to that year’s education spending bill.

Under the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare had a powerful tool to fight school segregation: It could withhold funding from districts that refused to integrate — and integration effectively meant busing. Mr. Helms wanted to strip the agency of that power.

As Mr. Biden rose on the Senate floor in September 1975 to embrace that approach, Mr. Helms wryly welcomed him “to the ranks of the enlightened.” Mr. Biden objected to the education department mandating desegregation absent a court order, and warned of white flight to the suburbs and even racial unrest.

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a segregationist, teamed up with Mr. Biden on an anti-busing amendment
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a segregationist, teamed up with Mr. Biden on an anti-busing amendmentCredit…Wally McNamee/Corbis, via Getty Images

“You have to open up avenues for blacks without closing avenues for whites,” Mr. Biden said in the 1975 television interview, adding, “You put more money into the black schools for remedial reading programs, you upgrade facilities, you upgrade opportunities, you open up housing patterns.”

Unless such steps were taken, he said, “we are going to end up with the races at war.”

“This is the real problem with busing,” Mr. Biden went on. “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.

“And what about the black student from Wilmington’s east side? You send him to Alexis I. du Pont, bus him through Centerville every day, then send him back to the ghetto. How can he be encouraged to love his white brothers?”

Mr. Helms’s amendment, which would have also barred the education department from collecting data about the race of students or teachers, failed. But a slightly narrower measure written by Mr. Biden, which prevented schools from using federal dollars to assign teachers or students by race, passed, 50-43.

The vote was a turning point in the Senate; Mr. Biden’s advocacy made it safe for other Democrats to oppose busing. Thus did Democrats like Senator Mike Mansfield, the majority leader, join the old bull segregationists — Mr. Helms, Mr. Thurmond, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi — in backing the Biden amendment.

Mr. Brooke — whose pro-busing stance generated intense backlash in his home state of Massachusetts — was furious. He called it “the greatest setback to civil rights since 1964.”

In 1976, Mr. Biden turned his attention to the next front: the courts.

In the Senate, he introduced legislation to bar the Justice Department from pursuing desegregation cases that might result in court-ordered busing, alarming lawyers in its Civil Rights Division.

“He was no friend of the work we were doing, I’ll put it that way,” said one of those lawyers, Ted Shaw, who handled school desegregation cases at the department and is now a professor of law at the University of North Carolina.

Ted Shaw, a former lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said Mr. Biden was “no friend of the work we were doing.”
Ted Shaw, a former lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said Mr. Biden was “no friend of the work we were doing.”Credit…Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Mr. Biden prodded Solicitor General Robert H. Bork — whose nomination to the Supreme Court he would later doom when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — to file a brief with the Supreme Court, asking it to use the Wilmington case as a test case to determine whether federal judges were issuing too many busing orders.

With his 1978 re-election campaign looming, and polls showing busing was deeply unpopular, Mr. Biden waged an all-out assault, backing a series of bills aimed at limiting the power of federal judges to issue busing orders. One measure would have stripped federal courts of their jurisdiction over desegregation entirely — an approach that would have pushed school desegregation cases into the hands of state judges, who were highly unlikely to issue busing orders.

Mr. Shaw, who later served as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., called it a “court-stripping bill.” He said that, while he would not rule out voting for Mr. Biden in the presidential race, “I also don’t think he gets a pass.”

None of those measures became law, and though Mr. Biden continued to press his anti-busing agenda into the early 1980s, the Wilmington district eventually integrated after a final federal court ruling in 1978, and the furor subsided.

Three years later, at a Senate hearing on busing, William Taylor, a civil rights lawyer who had been advising the Wilmington School Board on integration, spoke to Mr. Biden’s trepidations about busing, though the senator was not there to hear him.

“I am sorry Senator Biden is not here, but I would say specifically as someone who has been involved in Wilmington that despite all the dire predictions that were made before that plan was implemented, it has gone very well,” Mr. Taylor said. “It has gone peacefully. There have been achievement gains in the school.”

“I would say Wilmington is one of the success stories,” Mr. Taylor continued. “I would love to discuss with Senator Biden the evidence on which he believes desegregation has not been a success in Wilmington, if that is, indeed, what he believes.”

Busing in Wilmington ended in 1995 when, after 17 years of federally mandated integration measures, the state education board successfully argued to be released from oversight. The State Legislature has since passed a law stating every child should attend the school closest to their home, which was seen as the death blow for the final vestiges of the state’s busing era.

Mr. Biden in 1987, after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Biden in 1987, after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.Credit…Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Schools in Wilmington have become more racially segregated since that time; a study by Professor Orfield’s group at U.C.L.A. on school segregation in Delaware between 1989 and 2010 found that “significant and rising portions of the state’s black students enroll in segregated schools that are very isolated by both race and socioeconomic status.”

One Wilmington school is now named after Mr. Redding, the civil rights lawyer who handled the city’s desegregation cases. But some black leaders in Wilmington look back at busing as a failed experiment.

“Desegregation was a necessary thing,” said Mr. Baker, the former mayor. “But the way they did it? Horrible.

Mr. Smith, the longtime supporter of Mr. Biden, said the busing efforts for desegregation took away structures that protected black communities.

“We lost from busing,” he said. “We lost our control. We had the Wilmington school board. The black teachers lost.”

The Biden spokesman, Mr. Bates, said that if elected, Mr. Biden would reinstate Obama-era policies “designed to increase the diversity of our schools.” Mr. Biden has long maintained that the white flight he had warned about came to pass, noting the many white families who fled to Pennsylvania for that state’s public schools or enrolled their children in private schools.

After the death of his wife and infant daughter, and as he was in the thick of fighting busing in Delaware, Mr. Biden enrolled his sons in a private school where his sister was a teacher. In his 2007 memoir, he described court-ordered busing as “a liberal train wreck.”

Aides say he has not changed his mind.

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