Joe Biden walked into a packed school gymnasium in Delaware in the 1970s, facing an angry crowd that urged him to take the toughest possible stance against school busing. As he later wrote in his autobiography, he heard people in the crowd say, “There he is. . . . Goddam Biden. . . . Kill the sonofabitch.” And these, he wrote, “were my voters — working-class Democrats.”
Fearing that the crowd would turn violent, Biden assured them he strongly opposed busing as a way to integrate schools. As long as schools weren’t deliberately imposing segregation, students shouldn’t be forced to attend school in a different part of town, Biden said.
The assurances worked, and Biden won reelection.
Now the issue of busing — one of the most contentious of Biden’s long career — has resurfaced in a way that could threaten his presidential bid. At Thursday’s Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) turned to Biden and accused him of opposing policies that allowed black children like her to attend integrated schools.
On Friday, a Biden aide noted that the busing program Harris participated in was not court-ordered and said Biden would not have opposed it. A Harris spokesman, Ian Sams, replied, “She wasn’t just speaking for herself. She was speaking on behalf of countless black and brown children who were seeking access to better education through school integration.”
During the debate, Biden charged that Harris was mischaracterizing his record. Yet Biden’s opposition to court-ordered busing is one of the most well-documented views of his career. In his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” he called busing “a liberal train wreck.”
While Biden ran and won election as a liberal, Delaware voters at the time also elected anti-busing Republicans. Many white parents in the suburbs of Wilmington, the state’s largest city, were not willing to send their children into the city, where the schools were dominated by black students.
During the heat of the battle, in the mid-1970s, Biden called busing “an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me. I’ve gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.”
Biden on Friday sought to defend his record, saying he had always fought for civil rights.
“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” he said in an email message to supporters. “It should be about how we can do better and move forward and give every kid in this country an opportunity to succeed. That means good schools in every neighborhood.”
Aides also noted that when Biden was vice president, the Obama administration took steps to promote voluntary desegregation. In his own education plan, Biden promises new grants to help diversify schools and says he will restore guidance to help schools pursue legal strategies that was revoked under President Trump.
Mandatory busing has its roots in the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools inherently unequal. But it wasn’t until later that the reality of desegregation arrived in much of America.
In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that districts had stalled long enough, and federal courts began requiring communities across the country to desegregate their schools by busing white children to mostly black schools, and vice versa.
As Biden took his seat in the Senate in 1973, a case challenging racial segregation in Wilmington and its suburbs advanced through the federal courts, and resistance grew. Whites in the North tended to support civil rights as a general matter, but many saw it as a problem for the South, not one that should affect their lives or schools.
“When activists started to push for racial justice outside the bounds of the Jim Crow South, and whites in those communities were threatened with busing, we see this kind of backlash,” said Brett Gadsden, professor of history at Northwestern University and author of a book about desegregation in Delaware.
Resistance came from some African Americans as well, who resented being forced to attend schools where they were not wanted and not always treated well, though other black parents strongly supported the move, said Leland Brett Ware, a professor in Africana studies at the University of Delaware.
“I can recall going to a meeting when suburban parents were up in arms,” Ware said. “There’s opposition to busing, for sure, from white suburbanites, but also a number of black city people object to busing because they feel their children are not being treated fairly in the suburban districts.”
Through it all, Biden’s children attended private schools, according to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the matter.
The ultimate court order in Wilmington was far more expansive than the orders in other northern cities. The Supreme Court had ruled that desegregation plans would be limited to the city schools unless plaintiffs could prove intentional discrimination involving the suburbs. In Wilmington, the challengers proved just that, and the court required busing urban black students into the suburbs, and vice versa.
Biden has long insisted that he supports busing when discrimination is intentional. Asked Friday to explain why Biden opposed the Wilmington plan, two of his legal advisers said he believes the court was wrong in finding the suburbs of Wilmington complicit in segregation.
“He thought the court got it wrong,” said attorney Mark Gitenstein, a former Biden aide.
During the debate, Biden also said he supported voluntary busing programs.
In the Senate, Biden was also fighting the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which was enforcing powers given by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Under that law, school districts that discriminate on the basis of race risk losing federal dollars.
The Biden advisers said that the agency had overreached, and that Biden believed it should not hold districts accountable for discrimination unless a court had found a violation.
Back home, Biden initially declined to outline his views on busing before announcing his opposition in December 1974. He called the practice “increasingly discredited,” even if it had a “laudable goal.”
The following year, Biden told NPR that liberal Democrats for too long had kept quiet about the matter because it would put them in the company of Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D), a leading segregationist.
Speaking to a Delaware weekly called the People Paper, Biden put it starkly: “The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with. 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!”
Biden, meanwhile, led a faction of Democrats to sponsor legislation that would restrict the ability of federal courts to institute busing orders, according to a 1978 account in the Wilmington Evening Journal. During this period, he worked to sponsor anti-busing legislation with Southern senators with segregationist backgrounds.
That upset Democrats who supported busing, and some of them took Biden aside and asked how and when “the racists had gotten to me,” as Biden told it in his autobiography. An aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told Biden he was being “duped.”
“It provided him with kind of political cover with his constituents,” Gadsden said. “He could say, ‘I did my best to oppose busing,’ even if it had no practical effect on Wilmington and the surrounding suburbs.”
Matt Viser and Alice Crites contributed to this report.