I for one think Joe Biden told the unadulterated truth about his actions during the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately for the 2021 version of the Fabulist In Chief, he told the truth in 1987. Thirty-four years later while speaking to an audience of graduates from historically black colleges and universities, Biden reinvented himself as The Great Desegregator, liberator of restaurants and movie theaters across the South, or something.
The RNC captures both moments:
Biden in 1987: “I was not an activist…I was not out marching. I was not down in Selma. I was not anywhere else.”pic.twitter.com/ijty46nY83
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) December 18, 2021
In 1987, Biden’s own description of his involvement in the movement consisted solely of performing lifeguard duties in Wilmington with his true-enough nemesis/friend Corn Pop. Now, suddenly, he attended black church services and participated in their desegregation activities in restaurants and movie theaters? The Washington Examiner is the only news outlet thus far to report on the RNC’s rebuttal:
Biden said during his speech at South Carolina State University that he had attended a black church and then went out to help desegregate public accomodations [sic] in the area.
“Biden didn’t attend a Black church. He wasn’t out marching for civil rights as a teen,” the RNC statement continued. “What he was doing, decades later, was befriending white supremacists and destroying millions of Black lives.”
That refers to Biden’s collegiality with fellow senators James Eastland and Robert Byrd, friendships that Biden himself highlighted during the presidential campaign to argue for a return of comity in government. Both Eastland and Byrd were segregationists for a long while, including while Biden befriended them. That doesn’t make Biden himself a segregationist; his point was that differences shouldn’t equate to hostility. House Democratic whip James Clyburn publicly defended Biden on that point shortly after the beginning of the primaries, well before he had officially endorsed Biden.
However, Biden’s position on busing at the time was a lot closer to Eastland and Byrd than it was to the HBCU consensus. Remember when Kamala Harris ripped Biden in the first Democratic primary over his opposition to busing, as well as his defenses of Eastland and Byrd? Good times, good times:
That’s what prompted Clyburn’s response, and the issue died out in the summer of 2019. (Harris’ presidential prospects died out shortly thereafter.) But if Biden had really worked in the Civil Rights Movement to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters, wouldn’t he have used that experience as a rebuttal here? And while there were good reasons for even those concerned about civil rights to oppose busing on practical and long-term grounds, let’s just say the Venn diagram intersection of Super Desegregators and busing opponents in the 1970s was vanishingly narrow.
So the answer to the question in the headline is zero. There is no record of Biden ever participating in desegregation actions, and we have him on record during his first presidential campaign in 1987 explicitly denying he ever did. The only other question left to answer is whether Biden’s fabulism is deliberate, or whether he’s just gotten to a mental state where he’s having difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy and memory from wishful thinking.
Actually, that’s not the only other question. The other other question is whether the same fact checkers who made presidential lies their mission in life from 2017-20 feel compelled to uphold that commitment when a Democrat is in the White House. So far, Poynter’s PolitiFact and FactCheck.org are silent on this claim, and the Washington Examiner is the only news outlet covering it, but it’s still pretty new. Will they get around to it? And when they do, will we get lots and lots of lectures about “context”?
Update: Glenn Kessler fact-checked a similar set of claims a year ago, and awarded Biden two Pinocchios. He did picket a movie theater once over a segregation policy and apparently walked out of one restaurant in an incident involving a friend, but that’s it:
In Biden’s high school years, we can identify one incident that can possibly be deemed an effort at desegregating a restaurant — at the Charcoal Pit or (according to the student involved) possibly another restaurant.
Biden’s phrasing in his NAACP town hall does not suggest his effort to fight segregation exclusively took place in high school years, only that he got involved in civil rights then. But Biden’s use of plural —“restaurants” — cannot be confirmed.
As far as we can determine, Biden participated in just one walk-out at one restaurant. He also picketed a segregated movie theater. He’s gotten in trouble before for overstating his civil-right credentials, and this latest statement certainly does not compare to the hyperbolic claims he made during his first presidential run. But it’s still worthy of at least Two Pinocchios.
That’s two more incidents of personal action than I would have assumed, but Biden’s boasting hardly matches the facts here. Biden didn’t desegregate any restaurant, let alone in the plural, and only protested at one movie theater. Good on him for that, but the Great Desegregator claims here are otherwise nonsense. Read through all of Kessler’s research on these claims.