Civil rights leader John Lewis defended former vice president Joe Biden on Friday, saying he did not consider the presidential contender invoking past work with segregationist senators as offensive.

Biden waded into a firestorm this week when he used his relationships in the Senate with known segregationists as examples of how he could work across the aisle. The comments drew the ire of many Democrats, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a fellow 2020 presidential candidate, who said he thought Biden was being inconsiderate about how painful that time was for black Americans.

But Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia and one of the original Freedom Riders who was beaten and jailed because of his activism, supported Biden’s position.

“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis told reporters, recounting the range of unsavory people he has worked shoulder to shoulder with. “During the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us and arrested us and jailed us.

“We never gave up on our fellow human beings, and I will not give up on any human being,” Lewis added.


“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), above, said of former vice president Joe Biden’s invocation of past work with segregationists. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

Biden has rejected calls to apologize for saying that when he worked with segregationists, “at least there was some civility,” and that one of the senators called him “son” and never “boy.”

Lewis is not the first black lawmaker to support Biden this week. In fact, the most prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus largely defended Biden’s point.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, noted his own work with the late senator Strom Thurmond, also a segregationist.

“You don’t have to agree with people to work with them,” he said.

But Lewis, one of the last living icons of the Civil Rights era, is an especially powerful advocate for Biden at the end of a difficult week for his campaign.