“I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds. But I walked other grounds. Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well. You think I’m kidding, man. It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested.”

— President Biden, in remarks in Atlanta on voting rights, Jan. 11

It was just a throwaway line, made to laughter, in an important presidential speech. But here’s the president, saying he once had been arrested, during a section that recalled some of the heroes of the civil rights movement. He even suggested he had been arrested more than once, as he recalled it was the “first time” he had been arrested.

It’s certainly not the first time he’s said he’s been arrested. Previously, he has said he was arrested trying to see Nelson Mandela in South Africa (Four Pinocchios false) and for trying to enter an all-female dorm room at Ohio University (Partly False, according to USA Today). He has also suggested he was arrested for wandering onto the Senate floor as a “star-struck kid,” but most times he has indicated he was just given a warning.

But there’s no evidence we can find that Biden was ever arrested.

The Facts

Biden’s comment in Atlanta appears to refer to a story he has told on at least five occasions, each time attributing it to his late mother. He says she reminded him of this incident during a family discussion in 2008 about whether he should accept Barack Obama’s offer to be Obama’s running mate. Biden’s mother, Catherine “Jean” Biden, died in 2010. Biden told this story many years later, “a true story,” as he put it, though with slight differences in each retelling.

  • “My mom, God love her, she sat there the whole time and my mom, after my dad passed away we convinced her to move in with us and she was reluctant to do and anyway she was sitting there and I turned to her and said, ‘Honey you haven’t said anything’ and she said, ‘Joey’ — it’s a true story — she said, ‘Let me get this straight, remember when you were 14 years old and the real estate guys sold the house to a Black couple in an area — in a neighboring development called Graylyn Crest, I mean Carrcroft’ and I said, ‘Yeah mom.’ ‘Remember when I told you not to go down there, honey, because everybody is protesting and you got arrested standing with the family on the porch’ and I said, ‘Yeah mom.’ True story.” (Nashville, Nov. 19, 2017)
  • “She said, ‘Joey, didn’t I call you about a month ago and ask you about Barack?’ I said, ‘Yeah, mom.’ She said, 'Didn’t you say to me you thought he was really bright and had a great deal of integrity and would make a good president if he was the nominee?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Joey, remember at 15 years old and that real estate agent sold a house to the Black couple in Lynnfield.’ The neighboring, this was in suburban sprawl, the neighboring neighborhood. ‘I told you not to go down there because of the protests, and you went down and you got arrested because you were standing on the porch with the Black couple?’ I said, ‘Yeah, mom. I remember that.’” (Economic Club of Southwest Michigan, Oct. 16, 2018)
  • “I turned to my mom and was sitting there to my right, and I say, ‘Honey, you haven’t said anything. Well, what do you think?’ And I shouldn’t have asked. She looked at me, I swear to God this is a true story. She looked at me and said, ‘Joey, remember I called you about a month, six weeks ago and asked you about Barack, and you told me he had great integrity and he was really, really smart, and you thought he could be a good president?’ … We lived in a neighborhood called Mayfield, the next neighborhood was called Lynnfield … and a home in Lynnfield, I guess, I think I was 14, was sold to an African American couple, and there were people coming out of the city protesting and marching. … She said, ‘Remember I told you not to go down, and the police brought you back because you were standing on the front porch with the Black couple?’" (University of Utah, Dec. 13, 2018)
  • “We sat on the back porch and talked about it. My mom hadn’t said a word. She was 92 at the time. And I turned, Mom, I said, ‘Honey, you haven’t said anything.’ She said, ‘Joey, let me get this straight.’ She said, “You just … I called you about a month ago.’ She lived with us. ‘And I asked about a month ago, what Barack was like and you said he was a man of great honor, a brilliant man, and so on and so forth.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Joey, remember when they desegregated the neighborhood called Lynnfield? You were 13, I told you not to go there, all those people were protesting, and you got arrested standing on the porch with the Black family?’” (Nevada African Methodist Episcopal Church, Feb. 16, 2020)
  • “They said, ‘You got to run, Dad,’ ‘You got to run, Joe,’ my wife telling me. And my mom hadn’t said a word. And I turned to her and said, ‘Honey, what do you think?' She said, 'Joey, remember when you were a kid and they were desegregating that neighborhood called Lynnfield, down the road from us. And there were people protesting and I told you not to go down there and you went down and the police brought you back because you were standing on the step with the Black family. You were standing with them. And the police brought you home because they thought you’d get in trouble.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Mom, I remember that.’” (Oprah Winfrey Zoom conversation, Oct. 28, 2020)

The stories are roughly the same but there are subtle changes. In four cases, the protest supposedly took place in Lynnfield, Del., which was near the town of Mayfield. Biden’s family moved there in 1955, the year he turned 13. In one version, the protest took place in Carrcroft, which is nearby. Both Lynnfield and Carrcroft are about a mile from Mayfield.

In three cases, Biden asserts he was arrested for standing on the porch with the Black couple who were subject to demonstrations. On the face of it, that doesn’t make much sense. After all, what would be the charge?

In two versions, Biden says the police merely brought him back home from the protest after he stood on the porch. That makes a little more sense, though it’s unclear why police would take the time if they had their hands full with a protest. In any case, this means there would be no arrest record.

Twice, Biden says he was 14 years old, once he says he was 13 and another time he says he was 15.

Interestingly, in Biden’s 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” he references remarks made by his mother during the family discussion on whether to join the Democratic ticket — but leaves out any mention of a teenage arrest. “My ninety-year old mother, who had watched my fight for civil rights and racial equality, put it this way at a larger family meeting the next day: ‘So let me get this straight, honey. The first African-American in history who has a chance to be president says he needs your help to win — and you said no,'” Biden wrote.

A search of newspapers does turn up a protest in Carrcroft — but in 1959, not 1956 or 1957, when Biden was 13 or 14. Moreover, the protesters there were picketing the home of a real estate agent who had sold a home to a Black couple — in another neighborhood, Collins Park. That community was about nine miles from Biden’s home, and massive protests took place there.

“Police Guard Negroes in Collins Park,” the Wilmington Journal headlined its evening edition on Feb. 25, 1959. It reported seven arrests that day, including those of four teenagers for possessing fireworks. The article noted that the same real estate agent had sold a home in that neighborhood to a Black couple in 1957, but they had left the neighborhood after rocks were thrown through their windows.

“Crowds demonstrated in two different places Saturday night against the presence of a Negro family in a previously all-white housing development near here,” the Associated Press reported on March 2, 1959. “The larger group gathered at the home of George and Lucile Rayfield, a Negro couple, who early last week moved into Collins Park four miles south of Wilmington. Some of the demonstrators scuffled with state troopers. One policeman was reported to have been hit by a stone. Four persons were arrested. Estimates of the crowd ranged from 150 to 300.”

The AP further reported: “The other gathering was at the home of Francis A. Levering Jr., in suburban Carrcroft, which is north of the city and several miles from Collins Park. Levering is the real estate dealer who sold the Collins Park home to the Rayfields for a reported $13,500. At Carrcroft, demonstrators set up a crude cross, three or four feet tall, and tried to light it. Repeated efforts sizzled, however, and police seized it. No arrests were made at this site.”

The address for Levering’s home, as reported in the newspapers, indicates it was about a 15-minute walk from Biden’s home at the time, according to Google maps. Real estate records indicate the house was built in 1955 and a photo from the street shows a small set of steps lead into it.

The Wilmington Journal on a separate occasion mentioned an arrest of a teenager at Levering’s home during a protest but not under heroic circumstances described by Biden.

“A 17-year-old youth was charged with breach of the peace after allegedly swinging at a woman identified by state police as Mrs. Elizabeth MacGuiness of Castle Hills during the demonstration at Levering’s home,” the newspaper reported on Feb. 27, 1959. “After the arrest the boy was returned to the custody of his parents and will face action in Family Court, police said. The commotion caused by the young ‘outsider’ was the only one observed by police all evening.”

Biden was 16 at the time.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The Pinocchio Test

The primary source for this story is Biden — and we’ve learned over the years that he is not always a reliable source. He appears to be citing his mother to enhance his civil rights credentials — which we have noted he has exaggerated before — but too many elements do not add up to give this “arrest” more credibility than his previous claims of getting in trouble with the law.

There was a protest against a Black couple who had purchased a house in an all-White area, but it was a neighborhood many miles away from the Biden home. Biden instead appears to referring to a protest that took place outside the home of the real estate agent who was involved in the sale.

It’s possible that police might have taken the young Biden home from a dangerous situation — as he said twice — but that’s not an arrest. Moreover, one would think such a memorable incident would have made it into one of Biden’s memoirs. Instead, it’s not even mentioned in the book that specifically references the conversation with his mother about joining the ticket. Ordinarily, one would think such an important moment in a young man’s life would have merited an earlier recounting.

The president earns Four Pinocchios. If any new evidence turns up, we’re always willing to revisit this fact check.

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