Joe Biden and the Dixiecrats Who Helped His Career | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Joe Biden and the Dixiecrats Who Helped His Career

Vice President Joe Biden talked about his mentor James O. Eastland at a rally for Democrat Doug Jones in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017.

Vice President Joe Biden talked about his mentor James O. Eastland at a rally for Democrat Doug Jones in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Long-time cotton planter James O. Eastland puffed on a bulging cigar in the U.S. Senate dining hall in Washington, D.C., during dinner one evening, or as the balding 73-year-old senator called it, "sup'uh." In a few short months, the powerful Mississippi Democrat would retire, closing the book on a political career that he began and grew by using overtly racist appeals and outspoken opposition to civil rights.

On that evening in 1978, though, the powerful Dixiecrat would once again offer counsel to one of his favorite young mentees. Soon after 35-year-old Delaware freshman Sen. Joseph Biden joined him, Eastland sensed something was amiss.

"Son, what's the matt'uh?" Eastland asked a visibly dejected Biden.

Biden, a member of the prestigious Senate Judiciary Committee that Eastland chaired, explained that he faced tough re-election odds in November, and feared he might lose his seat.

"What ole Jim Eastland can do for you in Del'uh'wah?" offered Eastland, whose history of explicit white-supremacist rhetoric included warnings years earlier that integration would lead to "mongrelization" and a lowering of educational standards.

"Well, some places you can help, Mr. Chairman, and some places you'd hurt," Biden replied, knowing Eastland's endorsement would, if anything, cost him votes in the more liberal northeast.

"Well, I'll come to Del'uh'wah and campaign for you or agin' you, whichever will help the most," the man known back home as "Big Jim" replied knowingly.

"I promise."

'He Called Me Son'

Former Vice President Biden shared that story at a campaign stop for 
Alabama Democrat Doug Jones in October 2017, telling a Birmingham crowd of more than 1,000 that it illustrates "what the system needs today."

"Even in the days when I got here, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists," Biden told those gathered, many of whom were African American. "You'd get up there and argue like the devil with them, and then you'd go down and have lunch or dinner together. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked."

Fewer than two months before Biden's rally with Jones, white supremacists carrying swastikas, Confederate flags and tiki torches had marched on the college town of Charlottesville, Va., where they unleashed deadly racist violence, with one killing Heather Heyer after driving into a crowd of counter-protesters. The president of the United States defended them, saying there were "fine people on both sides."

When Biden announced his third bid for president late last month, he invoked those dark moments to make his case against Donald Trump.

"With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it," Biden said in his announcement video. "And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime. I wrote at the time that we're in the battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that's even more true today. We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.

"I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

Yet at the rally for Jones, who prosecuted two klansmen for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that left four black girls dead, Biden extolled the virtues of old-school political camaraderie that allowed northeastern liberal men to break bread with unrepentant southern segregationists in pre-party-switch times—framing it as an antidote to Trumpism. More than just a nostalgic paean to the ways of days gone by, though, Biden was paying homage to men who helped guide his early Senate career.

"(Eastland) never called me 'senator," Biden told the Jones supporters. "He called me 'son.'"

The Scranton, Pa., native who would someday serve as the vice president to America's first black president spent his first term relying on the counsel and mentorship of not only Eastland, but also Mississippi's other powerful segregationist Dixiecrat: U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis.

'Godfather of Mississippi Politics'

Born in Forest, Miss., Eastland was part of a family steeped in the mythmaking of the so-called "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy that falsely recast the South's role in the Civil War as one of gallantry and honor—a fight not to defend the institution of human slavery, but to preserve white southerners' "way of life." The family's history primed its descendants to accept this mythological rewrite; the Eastlands had moved to Forest only after Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman razed their farm eight miles north in Hillsboro.

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Former U.S. Sen. James Eastland, sometimes called “The Godfather of Mississippi Politics,” was a Dixiecrat known for his staunch support of segregation. He was also an early supporter of young Joe Biden. Photo courtesy Charles Tasnadi via AP

Eastland's mother, Alma Austin Eastland, "was weaned on firsthand reports of Yankee brutality and bitter and one-sided, often misguided, even hysterical accounts of 'Negro rule' during Reconstruction," historian J. Lee Annis wrote in his 2016 book, "Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi Politics."

Alma's father, Capt. Richmond Austin, had served under Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and then in the cavalry under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War ended. Austin passed a whitewashed portrayal of that heritage on to his daughter, who then passed it on to her son, the future U.S. senator.

Not content with just instilling her family's racist heritage in its next generation, though, Alma Austin Eastland became the president of the Scott County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization which has long worked to romanticize realities of slavery, the war and Reconstruction. The UDC led efforts to ban books that either portrayed the North and President Abraham Lincoln positively or that cast the South in an unsavory light by, for example, accurately identifying slavery as the true "cause" for which Confederate states seceded and fought.

To wild success, they pushed for history textbooks in public schools that were not just sympathetic to the South, but Lost Cause propaganda designed to indoctrinate future generations of children with Dixie fantasy. The materials painted an insufferably dishonest portrait of an Old South in which happy slaves served kindly masters, and public scorn and condemnation awaited the supposedly few slave owners who dared to mistreat the humans they kept as property.

Just as visible as the myths their textbooks inculcated in the minds of children nationwide for much of the 20th century, though, are the gangly Confederate statues that litter public squares, graveyards, college campuses and courthouse lawns across the South—looming reminders of the endurance of old-fashioned white supremacy and, with each second they continue to stand, the tacit acceptance of it that still holds sway in the communities where they remain.

As president of the UDC's Scott County chapter, Alma Austin Eastland used her fundraising prowess to help make sure that, for more than a century after its 1917 dedication, Mississippi lawmakers would walk past a monument dedicated to the "Women of the Confederacy" every day. The monument, which features two women gathered around a dying Confederate soldier, still stands in front of the steps outside the Mississippi Capitol building today.

The Daughters of the Confederacy "aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states' rights and white supremacy remained intact," historian Karen Cox explained in her 2003 tome, "Dixie's Daughters."

The future Sen. Eastland drank his mother's version of history up. In the mid-1950s, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott drove a new wave of civil-rights activism more than a year after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision had mandated an end to segregation in public schools, Eastland revealed his belief that the South had, in fact, won the war, albeit belatedly.

Yes, there was the brief Reconstruction period, during which time freed black men had full voting rights and even held high office in Mississippi, he admitted, but that ended in 1877. In Reconstruction's wake had emerged not only a bloody reign of racial terror and oppression, but organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the racist Jim Crow laws that Eastland and other southern politicians spent the mid-20th century supporting.

The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the orders to desegregate constituted a "Second Reconstruction," Eastland told supporters at the time. The long-suffering South, though, would ultimately win the same kind of cultural victory through persistence.

"How long did it take the South to win the war?" Eastland asked a crowd in the 1950s, as Annis recounts it. "Eleven years, wasn't it?"

Eastland was referring to the time between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. The war ended in 1865, and Reconstruction ended 12 years later in 1877. (His math was a little off.)

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As a liberal senator before segregationists switched to the GOP, Joe Biden’s (left) friendships extended to not only conservatives, but notorious racist Dixiecrats like former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (right). Photo courtesy Scott Applewhite via AP

Today, Biden says that he believes the segregationists he served with, like 
Eastland, Stennis and South Carolina 
Dixiecrat-turned Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, changed before the end of their lives, W. Ralph Eubanks, a professor at the University of Mississippi Center for Southern Studies, told the Jackson Free Press that he is not so sure that is true.

"I think a lot of it is Joe Biden's 
affability," Eubanks said. "He wants to love everybody. It is, in some ways, admirable. I mean, you just think, 'Gosh, this is just really admirable that this is a politician that really crosses the aisle.'"

Eubanks pointed to Biden's praise of Thurmond at his 2003 funeral. "I looked into his heart, and I saw a man, a whole man," Biden told the mourners who had gathered. "I tried to understand him. I learned from him. And I watched him change oh so suddenly. Like all of us, Strom was a product of his time. But he understood people. He cared for them. He truly wanted to help. He knew how to read people, how to move them, how to get things done."

"He really says Strom had really changed," Eubanks said of Biden. "I'm not sure Strom really changed. He was forced to 'change.' The laws changed."

After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Thurmond left the party, saying it had "abandoned the people," and joined the GOP. He campaigned for that year's Republican nominee for president, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had opposed the law.

The Southern Manifesto

In the spring of 1956, both of Mississippi's senators gathered around a mahogany table and signed onto the Southern Manifesto, denouncing the Supreme Court's desegregation orders as a "clear abuse of judicial powers." Though Stennis kept a lower profile than Eastland on matters of race, he helped write the document, which segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina first drafted. Publicly, Eastland's bombastic rhetoric exceeded Stennis', with Eastland warning shortly before the Brown v. Board decision that integration would result in lower education standards.

Stennis and Eastland often aligned in their response to civil-rights efforts. After white supremacists murdered 14-year-old African American Emmett Till, claiming he had whistled at a white woman, Eastland and Stennis responded to the outcry by publicly revealing that the victim's father, Private Louis Till, had been court-martialed, convicted, and hanged a decade earlier for the murder of one Italian woman and the rape of two others. Those revelations, Annis writes in "Big Jim," did nothing to assuage the nationwide horror that photos published in Jet Magazine showing Till's disfigured body had inspired.


'A Liberal Trainwreck'

One aspect of the civil-rights agenda that Eastland hated most was the use of busing to send children to school across district lines in order to make schools more integrated.

"Forced busing to achieve racial balance ordered by federal courts is reprehensible, cruelly seeking to make our schoolchildren the victims of a problem of historical dimension," The Pittsburgh Press reported Eastland saying in 1973.

Just a few months earlier, a new 
colleague had joined the Senate who would help him in his fight to dismantle busing laws: Joe Biden.

Though he largely disagreed with his new Dixiecrat colleagues' views on civil rights, Scranton's future most-famous son would soon come to ally with them to fight against the key integration program.

Busing was not used to fight public-school segregation in the South only, and its introduction in the North caused some northern liberals, like Biden, to rethink their support for it and even join anti-busing southern Democrats in that fight, Millsaps civil rights historian Stephanie Rolph told the Jackson Free Press on April 30.

"We kind of see them drop back into a space that they can share with each other," Rolph explained.

During his first two years in office, Biden had generally voted in favor of busing, but soon changed.

Eubanks said he thinks Biden's position changed due to "political expediency." As Biden ran for Senate in 1972, segregationist Dixiecrat George Wallace won the party's Florida primary, spawning a raft of anti-busing legislation. At the same time, busing had become a big issue in Delaware as children were being bused out of the suburbs and into Wilmington and vice versa.

"Southern politicians, who had been pushing against desegregation in the 1950s, realized, 'Oh, OK, now that it's hit the doorstep of the northeasterners, they don't like it any more than we do.' And these political alliances began to form. So that's why you had someone like Joe Biden making alliances with Strom Thurmond, James Eastland and John Stennis," Eubanks said.

By 1975, Biden thought of busing as a "liberal train wreck," as he wrote in his 2007 memoir, and found himself huddled with a group of Dixiecrats, planning how they might introduce anti-busing legislation that could pass in the Senate.

"Guys like Stennis and Eastland have more in common with Biden and people like him than people would normally think, because of this very thing," Rolph said. "And white southerners, especially in the Democratic Party, take a lot of pride in the fact that the North begins to experience some of what they consider to be a violation in the late '60s and early '70s."

In 1976, the Wilmington Evening Journal reported on a speech Biden gave to a group of fifth-graders in Newark, Del., telling them he understood their feelings about busing, but that he hoped they would not blame African American kids for it.

"Kids had no choice in this," he told the white children. "You shouldn't hate black kids. They had nothing to do with it. Black kids don't want to come to your school any more than you want to go to their school."

On two occasions in 1977, Biden wrote Eastland to thank him for his help as he sought to bring anti-busing legislation to the floor. For segregationists like Eastland and Stennis, expressing opposition to "forced busing" was code for their opposition to public-school integration in general.

"I am opposed to the busing of schoolchildren for the sole purpose of overcoming racial imbalance," Stennis wrote in a 1973 letter to a constituent. "This unreasonable busing is injurious to our school children and only benefits some Washington socio-political statistician."

In "Promises to Keep," Biden recalled explaining to an angry crowd of white parents that his opposition to busing was not total. "Look, I told them, I was against busing to remedy de facto segregation owing to housing patterns and community comfort, but if it was intentional segregation, I'd personally pay for helicopters to move the children. There were howls in the crowd," he wrote.

Much of the segregation that cropped up in public schools, though, was the result of white flight, as white peoples abandoned their city neighborhoods and moved to the suburbs to avoid integration, which naturally changed housing patterns.

In Jackson, white flight was devastating to the cause of integration. Anecdotal evidence and national trends suggest integration efforts peaked there in the 1980s. Today, in the Jackson Public Schools District, which is the largest in the state, the most integrated school is 95% black.


Biden's Housing Restrictions

Rolph told the Jackson Free Press that she sees Biden's attempt to divide busing in cases of "de facto" segregation and busing in cases of "intentional segregation" as part of a longstanding effort by some politicians to divide "racism in the north from racism in the south."

"The Civil Rights Movement in the north is much more complicated, because it's tied to economic patterns, it's tied to disenfranchisement," she said. "But (Biden's explanation) also erases the history of deliberate housing restrictions that were put into place as early as the 1920s. So he would have to confront the long-term building of a de facto system of segregation, which is something that we are still trying to dig out of."

At one point, Biden himself lived in a Vermont home that, on the deed, included restrictions that said it could not "be owned or occupied by any Negro or person of Negro extraction," Jet Magazine reported in 1986. His father, Joseph Biden Sr., had purchased the home in 1969, and transferred it to the younger Biden in 1971, just before his first run for Senate. The deed, which had been drawn up in 1940, added that the prohibition "is not intended to include occupancy by a Negro domestic servant ...."

James McClellan, a Republican supporter of William H. Rehnquist's nomination as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, invoked the deed during a 1986 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Biden sat on. McClellan said it pointed to Biden's "hypocrisy," after he and other members of the committee questioned a similar deed for a house Rehnquist owned that barred Jews. Biden, though, said he had never seen the deed, and that neither he nor his parents had signed it.

Still, the existence of such a deed aligns with Rolph's point about the complexity of the Civil Rights Movement in the north, contra Biden's suggestion that "intentional segregation" could easily be distinguished from segregation as a result of "housing patterns and community comfort."

"You can say, in that way, that the southern Civil Rights Movement was a clear success—if it was focused on desegregation and voting rights," Rolph said. "If you would say that the northern Civil Rights Movement was about economic equity, equal opportunity, fair housing, that was not as clear-cut. So I think his position kind of reflects an easy out for a number of public figures to say, 'Well, this wasn't done perfectly. It's just the way it shook out.' But that points to a system that was built on supremacy."

Biden's anti-busing efforts earned a rebuke from then-President Jimmy Carter. They never became law.

Still, opposition to busing did not come only from segregationists. In a 1974 letter, 335 black parents joined 1,737 white parents in the rural Marion County, Miss., communities of Bunker Hill and Improve to complain, in a letter to Stennis, that some of their children were being bused between 17 and 49 miles or more away from home, causing them to have to leave earlier in the morning and get home later in the afternoon than other kids. Were it not for busing, they would attend the nearby Improve High School.

"Our school is not against integration," the parents wrote. "We are against the long bus ride to Marion County (High School)."

Indeed, Rolph said, not all objections to busing were rooted in naked racial animus.

"Outside of the South, I think a lot of those objections in places like Boston, for example, came from blue-collar, white working-class families who found it to be a hardship for their kids to be bused 45 minutes away when their parents were working hourly jobs, maybe, in the neighborhood, or near the neighborhood," she said. "Or because they had moved into the neighborhood because the schools were really good, and now that meant nothing."

Those class dynamics cannot be easily separated from race, though, she said.

"I would argue that a lot of this is rooted in racial identity and what it means to be white," she said. "You may be a working-class white person, but you're white, and that gives you access to things that a black working-class family or a black middle-class family may not have access to.

"When busing procedures are put into place in the '70s, really, it is white working-class voters who revolt, because they feel like they are now being discriminated against because they are white. And to send their kids to a school they did not choose, through their choice of neighborhood—that really undermines their work ethic, their ideology and what they believe to be true about success," Rolph added.

'It Set Me Free'

The Dixiecrat mentorship Biden received during his early years in the Senate appear to have left their mark. In 1986, The Morning News reported on Biden's trip to Alabama, where Democratic state Sen. Howell Heflin told the crowd he "understands the South" and its "traditions and values." Biden, the Morning News reported, "even offered the crowd a bit of absolution, telling them that they had confronted their racial problems and dealt with them" and that "apologies were no longer necessary."

"A black man has a better chance in Birmingham than in Philadelphia or New York," Biden said then.

That is a sentiment Eastland, who retired in 1978, surely would have appreciated. He softened his rhetoric on race in later years, even as he donated large amounts of money to segregation academies in the Mississippi Delta.

In 1985, Eastland sent a $500 check to the Mississippi NAACP, an organization he had once railed against, and a letter to its chairman, Aaron Henry, with whom he had struck a friendship.

"Thousands of us have been helped by your gallant, dedicated and persistent leadership that has made recognition of a life that includes all mankind possible," Eastland wrote to Henry.

Big Jim never did apologize for his strong segregationist past, however.

"Our state is over the hump. I think we oughta forget the battles we had," Eastland would say when asked, Annis' book recalls.

Stennis, who had never voted for a civil-rights bill since the day he entered the Senate in 1948, broke with his past when he voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982. The next year, he opposed the bill that created the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday—a bill supported by even South Carolina segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, another Dixiecrat friend whom Biden had vouched for.

In 2008, Biden told Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd that Stennis was a "hell of a guy," and recalled their first meeting, in which Stennis instructed him to sit down at a large mahogany desk, around which were 12 chairs.

"'Son, what made you run for United States Senate?'" Biden recalled Stennis asking him. "Like a damn fool I told him the exact truth without thinking about it. I said, 'Civil rights, sir.'"

"As soon as I did, I swear to God I began to get these beads of sweat on my head, and it was like, 'Oh geez, what have I said?' He looked at me and he said, 'Good, good, good,' and that was the end of the conversation," Biden told Ladd.

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From the time he entered the Senate, U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis voted against every civil rights bill that came before his desk until he voted to renew the Voting Rights Act in 1982. Photo courtesy United States Senate

Then, Biden recalled another conversation that took place 18 years later as Stennis was retiring. At that meeting, Stennis put his hand on the same table.

"You see this table and chair? This table was the flagship of the Confederacy from 1954 to 1968," Biden recalled Stennis saying. "Senator (Richard B.) Russell had (representatives from) the Confederate states sit here every Tuesday to plan the demise of the Civil Rights Movement. We lost, and it's good we lost."

"Then he looked at me," Biden continued, "and I got chills when he said: 'It's time this table goes from the possession of a man against civil rights to a man for civil rights.' I said, 'Mr. Chairman, I'm honored,' and we spoke a few more seconds. When I got to the door, he said, 'One more thing, Joe.' He turned in his wheelchair, and he said, 'The Civil Rights Movement did more to free the white man than the black man.' I said, 'How's that, Mr. Chairman?' He went like this." Biden held his fist over his heart and quoted Stennis: "'It freed my soul. It freed my soul.'"

Still, Stennis admitted no remorse even as he was retiring, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported after interviewing him in 1988.

"Stennis offers no apologies for once fighting the lost racial causes of his beloved Mississippi. ... And as that career comes to a close, the 87-year-old patriarch of the Senate feels no need to offer excuses for having 'done my duty,'" the report reads.

In that same report, Biden praised Stennis as "the epitome of the good and the virtue that the Senate" should stand for.

No Democrat has won Stennis' seat since his last re-election in 1982. Only one Democrat has come within fewer than 10 points of winning it—Democrat Mike Espy in last year's special election who would have been the first African American to hold a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi since Reconstruction, had he won.

This year, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, a supporter of the current Mississippi flag, which bears within it the emblem of the Confederacy, approved a new license plate. The plate gives drivers the option of displaying the "Mississippi Stennis Flag."

Laurin Stennis proposed her new design to help the state shed the imagery of its past—a history marked and shaped by the hands and votes of her own grandfather, who inked the Southern Manifesto.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to ashton@jacksonfreepress.com. Read Donna Ladd's full 2008 interview with Joe Biden in Jackson at jacksonfreepress.com/biden.

CORRECTIONS: A prior version of this story referred to W. Ralph Eubanks as an historian at the University of Mississippi; he is a professor of southern studies at the UM Center for Southern Studies. Also, Sen. Joe Biden was 35 years old in 1978, not 40.

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