Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, defended Joe Biden on Wednesday after the Democratic presidential candidate cited his working relationships with segregationist senators as an example of his ability to “bring people together.”
A South Carolina Democrat who serves as the U.S. House Majority Whip, Clyburn said that from his experience coming up in politics as a black man in the Jim Crow South, his only option was to work with white politicians and civic leaders who controlled the system and largely opposed civil rights.
“If I had only worked with people who opposed segregation, I never would have worked with people who were not my color,” Clyburn said, who is 78 and was first elected to Congress at the age of 52.
Clyburn — who first told Politico Wednesday that he worked with the late-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., “all my life,” despite Thurmond’s notoriously pro-segregationist platform — later told McClatchy that he has been lucky enough to see some lawmakers evolve in their thinking.
“I said at Fritz Hollings’ funeral, ‘Thank God a man can grow,’ ” Clyburn recalled of the South Carolina’s other long-serving U.S. senator, a Democrat who died earlier this year. “(Hollings) ran for office in 1947 or ‘48 as a segregationist. He left office as a progressive. Thank God a man can grow.”
This is the second time in recent weeks Clyburn has tried to tamp down criticisms of Biden. The first time was in regards to the former vice president’s work on the controversial 1994 crime bill, which Clyburn also supported.
Those comments prompted Bakari Sellers — a former S.C. state representative and CNN commentator who is backing U..S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for president and has expressed interest in running for Clyburn’s congressional seat one day — to accuse Clyburn of “tacitly endorsing” Biden despite his pledge to stay neutral in the South Carolina primary.
Asked Wednesday whether he had any response to Sellers’ accusations, Clyburn chuckled: “None whatsoever.”
Biden delivered his latest remarks at a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday night, boasting that if he could find common ground with late-Sen. James Eastland, D-Miss., and late-Sen. Herman Talmadge, D-Ga., he could find it with anyone.
“He never called me ‘boy,’ ” Biden, a former U.S. senator from Delaware, said of Eastland. “He only called me ‘son.’ ”
Biden’s comments drew backlash from some of his 2020 challengers.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’ ” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is black, in a statement. “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is married to an African American women with whom he has two children, tweeted, “It’s 2019 (and Biden) is longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal.”