The day after Sen. Kamala Harris scolded him during his first presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden defended his record at a Chicago event Friday, saying “30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights.”
Speaking at a pre-scheduled labor luncheon at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition annual convention, Biden began a more than 20-minute speech addressing the exchange, which has become a focal point of Thursday night’s debate.
“I want to be absolutely clear about my record and position on racial injustice, including busing,” Biden said. “I never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing.”
Biden said he supported a federal action to address the root causes of segregation, including taking on the banks and changing the way that neighborhoods were segregated,” he said.
“I’ve always been in favor of using federal authority to overcome state initiated segregation,” Biden said, adding he cast a deciding vote in 1974 against an amendment that would have banned the right of the federal court to be able to use busing as a remedy.
During his address, Biden frequently spoke directly to Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the civil rights leader who founded Rainbow PUSH.
“I know you know I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights, and voting rights, equal rights, are enforced for everyone,” Biden said. “These rights are not up to the states to decide. They’re our federal government’s duty to decide. It’s a constitutional question to protect the civil rights of every single American, and that’s always been my position. And so, that’s why I ran for federal office in the first place.”
Biden defended his decades-old record, which included voting for the Civil Rights Act in 1990 and writing the law that allows the attorney general to pursue cases involving a pattern of practice by law enforcement officers in violation of the constitution.
During Thursday night’s debate, Harris questioned why Biden had praised the “civility” of working with segregationist senators. But the most tense moments came when Harris brought up Biden’s past opposition to mandatory busing to desegregate schools.
Harris, 54, said she was one of the young children bused to schools: “That little girl was me.”
Harris was referencing Biden’s support of state’s rights on the question of school busing.
“I did not oppose busing in America, what I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” Biden, 76, said to Harris during the exchange.
Biden also defended his civil rights history in a fundraising email to supporters Friday afternoon. It began with, “I’d like to say something about the debate last night.”
“Right now, we have a president who promotes hate and division -- and has encouraged the poison of white supremacy,” the email says. “I will be a president who stands against racism and the forces of exclusion and intolerance everywhere in our society -- in our institutions, in our voting booths, and in our hearts.”
The 25-minute speech at the Rainbow PUSH convention was part of a labor luncheon, which also featured local union leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. And Biden vowed to the unions, if elected, that they’d have “a full partner in the White House.”
“Wall Street did not build America. Stock brokers did not build America. Hedge fund managers did not build this country,” Biden said. “You built this country. The great American middle class. The unions built the middle class. That’s why it exists.”