One of the greatest books on American politics, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” has a passage that perfectly captures Biden’s tendency to embellish aspects of his life story. The 1992 book profiles six candidates who ran for president in 1988, including Biden, with a breathless you-are-there inner monologue that has never been replicated.
“Joe Biden shared his life — or his version of it — continuously,” Cramer writes. “He confided it, displayed it, spread it profligately, even expanded it to connect it with your life. He would settle for nothing less.”
As an example, Cramer described how Biden would talk about participating in civil rights marches — “remember how that felt” — but “trouble is, Joe didn’t march. He was in high school, playing football.”
Cramer adds (with all of these ellipses):
But there was one teammate, a black guy, and one day they all went to the Charcoal Pit for french fries, and counterman was not going to serve the black kid—So Joe walked out….and so did the rest of the guys, they walked out…and that was the same feeling in the marches, right? And that was the feeling Joe wanted to share, see? ….The gurus would shake their heads. “That’s not marching.” And Joe would say, “I know. Okay.” But then, a week later, another crowd…and Joe would do it again.
With that context in mind, let’s look at Biden’s latest comment.
This claim is a more nuanced riff than some of the statements that got the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in trouble before. The biggest issue in the past is that Biden has overstated his activism. Here, he says “I wasn’t any great shakes.” He has also sometimes conflated actions taken as a college student and suggested they took place when he was in high school.
For instance, in 1983, Biden at one point said: “When I was 17, I participated in sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie houses. And my stomach turned upon hearing the voices of Faubus and Wallace. My soul raged on seeing Bull Connor and his dogs.”
In 1987, he said: “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.” He also said in 1987: “When I was 17 years old, I participated in sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie houses of Wilmington, Del.”
But ultimately it appears three events can be more or less confirmed:
— He walked out of a restaurant as a high school student because a black football player would not be served. (We will explain this in more detail below.)
— Over the summer while in college, he became the only white lifeguard at an all-black swimming pool. Our colleague Robert Samuels detailed that experience.
— In 1962-63, he participated in pickets of the last segregated movie theater in Wilmington. Richard “Mouse” Smith, the former president of the Delaware NAACP who met Biden at the pool, in 2019 vouched that Biden was there: “We know Joe as the ally who was there beside us to protest the Rialto Theater’s discriminatory policy to segregate moviegoers based on race.” (Biden sometimes says the picketing took place in 1965. The 2019 book “Historic Theaters of Delaware” says the theater was first picketed in November 1962 and began admitting black patrons in May 1963. Delaware outlawed segregation in public accommodations seven months later.)
The incident at the Charcoal Pit restaurant is the closest thing to “desegregating restaurants.” Biden at times has suggested he organized the walk-out. But initially the black student involved, Frank Hutchins, in 1987 told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Biden and the other white students did not realize he was not served. “They weren’t aware of what happened,” Hutchins said. “I was only 16 then. It was my problem and my battle for me to work out. They were oblivious to it until later.”
But then a few days later Hutchins told a reporter from the Wilmington News Journal that his memory had been refreshed and Biden might have witnessed another racial incident. “There were a number of these kinds of incidents and it is clear to me Senator Biden could be referring to any one and be perfectly accurate,” he said.
Still, that’s just one restaurant. In 1987, a Biden campaign spokesman told reporters that Biden “did participate in action to desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater.”
Asked about Biden’s reference to “restaurants” in his remarks to the NAACP, Biden’s current campaign provided a 1977 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer that said Biden as a college student participated in sit-ins to integrate restaurants along Route 40.
The John F. Kennedy administration had worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to end segregation because of a serious international embarrassment — diplomats from many of the newly created countries in Africa would not be served at restaurants as they drove between New York and Washington.
But the Philadelphia Inquirer article appears based on Biden’s recollections. The Washington Examiner in 2019 interviewed several key participants in the campaign who were also at the University of Delaware and could not locate anyone who remembered Biden’s participation. The campaign started in late 1961, so Biden would have been a freshman then, as he graduated from high school in the spring of that year.
The Route 40 effort, with the cooperation of the State Department, quickly won the cooperation of many restaurants, earning a letter of thanks in November from President Kennedy. Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida and author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” said about half of the restaurants along Route 40 desegregated in 1961, with most of the rest quickly following suit in 1962. Relatively few sit-ins were necessary in the end.
Smith told The Fact Checker he could not specifically recall that Biden was involved in the Route 40 campaign. “But I can tell you he was part of the movement,” he said.
Arsenault told The Fact Checker it would have been unusual for someone as young as Biden to be involved in the Route 40 demonstrations. “He’s a story-teller and he naturally embellishes,” he said. “There may be a grain of truth but the specifics, he has walked it back a number of times.”
“Defeating systemic racism and realizing this nation’s promise for all its people has been a driving cause of Joe Biden’s life," said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “He is proud to have stood against the scourge of segregation and would use every single day in the White House to bring our country together and uphold the rights and dignity of every single American.”
The Pinocchio Test
In Biden’s high school years, we can identify one incident that can possibly be deemed an effort at desegregating a restaurant — at the Charcoal Pit or (according to the student involved) possibly another restaurant.
Biden’s phrasing in his NAACP town hall does not suggest his effort to fight segregation exclusively took place in high school years, only that he got involved in civil rights then. But Biden’s use of plural —“restaurants” — cannot be confirmed.
As far as we can determine, Biden participated in just one walk-out at one restaurant. He also picketed a segregated movie theater. He’s gotten in trouble before for overstating his civil-right credentials, and this latest statement certainly does not compare to the hyperbolic claims he made during his first presidential run. But it’s still worthy of at least Two Pinocchios.
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