COLUMBIA, S.C. — The cheers began as soon as Joe Biden took the stage here before a heavily African American crowd: “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
The chant, and the applause accompanying it, were impromptu signs that several days of controversy over Biden’s remarks about his past work with segregationist senators had not undermined his support from South Carolina’s crucial black electorate.
But behind the scenes, many of Biden’s most ardent black supporters in the state sought to send a message to the candidate himself — that while he has a lot of goodwill in the community, he shouldn’t take it for granted. That point was made in a private meeting with roughly 30 black leaders, including some who have worked on previous presidential campaigns.
That group of South Carolinasupporters — they call themselves the Bidenites — warned him that his words describing his ability to work constructively with former senator James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) and others, as well as his response to criticism afterward, sent the wrong message to African Americans who consider him an ally.
“It was conveyed to him today that you can’t take folks for granted, and he can’t take past relationships for granted,” said Brandon Brown, who had been deputy South Carolina director for Biden’s 2008 presidential run.
The group assured him he still has political capital in South Carolina, from years of supporting civil rights measures as well as his partnership with Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. But attendees suggested that he should make himself more visible in the state, especially in areas that rarely see statewide or federal candidates.
“The way black folks really view it is, people like Biden have been there when the chips are down and have the support of the black community,” said Fletcher N. Smith, a former South Carolina state representative who was at the meeting. “It’s hard for anybody new coming on the national scene to come down here and say, ‘Vote for us.’ ”
The weekend’s events, as nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates converged on South Carolina, reflect how Biden is benefiting from strong support among African American voters who are giving him latitude for mistakes in part because they see him as the strongest candidate to defeat President Trump.
The Democrats came to this pivotal early primary state for the famous annual fish fry sponsored by Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the most senior black member of Congress, as well as for the state Democratic Party’s convention. The gathering unfolded just days before the first Democratic debate, and shortly after events thrust racial issues to the forefront of the national conversation.
Interviews with numerous black voters in the state showed that, unlike some national political figures, many South Carolinians are taking Biden’s remarks in stride, while suggesting his room for error is not limitless.
Some voters said — given their long history in the South of dealing with an often-hostile white establishment — Biden’s argument that sometimes you have to work with your adversaries was an obvious point, not a shocking one.
“He doesn’t get off the hook for his comment, but I will say that what one says and what one does are different things,” said the Rev. J.M. Flemming, president of the Greenville NAACP. “He has proven himself to be better than his statement.”
Flemming added, “I’m not going to let anybody sidetrack folks that I know about who are looking at Biden, when we ought to be looking at the things said by Trump. Nobody is making anybody out to be a perfect person, but what Trump is doing, for me, that’s far worse.”
The controversy started Tuesday night, when Biden at a fundraiser described his relationship with Eastland and Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), saying that although he had deep philosophical differences with both, he had to work with them to accomplish things as a young senator.
He continued, “Well, guess what? At least there was some civility. 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.”
Speaking of Eastland, he said, “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’ ”
Eastland, a senator from Mississippi during the 1940s and until 1978, once described African Americans as “an inferior race.” He called the disappearance of three civil rights workers, who were later found murdered, a publicity stunt.
Biden’s comments provided immediate ammunition for those who view the former vice president as prone to gaffes and out of step with the country’s current norms, particularly on issues of race and gender, as well as for those looking to challenge Biden’s position at the top of the polls.
Two black presidential candidates, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), said they were troubled by Biden’s statement and called for an apology. Booker expressed his outrage in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. “I know that somebody running for president of the United States, somebody running to be the leader of our party, should know that using the word ‘boy’ in the way he did can cause hurt and pain,” Booker said. “And we need a presidential nominee and leader of our party to be sensitive to that.”
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state lawmaker who is supporting Harris, said the concept of race goes deeper than the way it’s often portrayed by political pundits.
“Race is not at the top of our agenda — pain is at the top of our agenda,” Sellers said. “We’re trying to turn the page. Black voters don’t want to lose anything else. They wanted us to lose everything. It’s a pain we’ve lived with for a very long time. The South Carolina we live in is very black and white, and race is very profound. Race for us is not someone calling you n----r, or the Confederate flag being waved in your face. Racism is economic. It’s a pervasive thing we face everyday.”
And Biden’s comments, Sellers said, suggest he’s an undisciplined candidate out of touch with a diverse country.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts with Joe Biden,” Sellers said. “When you look at ’84 civil asset forfeiture, the crime bill, busing — which is a huge issue in South Carolina — and his praising segregation, it just shows that Joe Biden is an artifact.” Sellers was referring to Biden’s positions on major pieces of legislation that many activists believe hurt black communities.
Biden did not address any of the criticism or touch on the controversy publicly at Clyburn’s fish fry, though he has privately sought out advice from black political leaders nationwide.
Polls support his backers’ contention that Biden has deep support in South Carolina. According to a recent CBS News poll, more than 45 percent of Democratic voters say he is their first choice for president. That support is even stronger among African Americans, where nearly 3 of 4 support him.
Many of those supporters say they don’t know what the fuss is about. “I just don’t see his comments as a mistake, and I’m not sure why some people do,” said Kendra Hamilton, a teacher who lives in Columbia. She said she was resisting the urge to have a “knee-jerk reaction” and added, “We all have worked with people we don’t like or don’t agree with to get things done.”
Other voters, particularly those whose strongest desire is to unseat Trump, worried that Democrats were harming their collective chances. Rosemary Lawrence, 74, of Charlotte, said she is voting for Biden because she feels that the nation will not put a black person in the White House four years after electing Trump. She worried that Booker and other critics are only bolstering Trump’s chances.
“And if they keep pushing these issues,” she said, “then they’re going to diminish their value in my eyes.”