Most current politico’s probably don’t know as much about James Eastland as I do. As someone who has extensively studied the legislative fights over Civil Rights during over two decades of interest in the subject, this week’s revelations were horrifying for someone like me who previously asked progressives to be open to Biden’s candidacy. Horrifying is a strong word, but that’s what it was – this goes far beyond the allegations of Ralph Northam wearing blackface in my opinion and is less about the times than other transgressions where I have made excuses for Biden. Jim Eastland for me personally as someone who has studied southern politics closely was the single most repulsive legislative or political leader of the Civil Rights era anywhere in the country. To learn of Biden’s affection for him is quite possibly irreconcilable for me. It should also cause significant pause for everyone else who believes in equality.
James Eastland wasn’t just a segregationist like most other Democrats from the south. He was an outright racist who disliked any sort of contact with African-Americans and repeatedly whether tacitaly or covertly condoned violence against them. Eastland also was the single person most responsible for the failure of countless pieces of Civil Rights legislation, or watering down of such legislation through many years. Eastland’s entire legacy, his entire career was built on keeping African-Americans in bondage. For newer politico’s think of Eastland as a Steve King with major legislative power, not just a blowhard who gives extreme soundbites on TV.
Outside of the crude Strom Thurmond who had actually once been a racial moderate, and eventually shifted back to that position later in life, Eastland was the single worst Senator on issues of justice for African-Americans. While other southerners were segregationists, Eastland was a firebrand, a true believer in both the inferiority of blacks and the need for southern whites to use all means, even violence to keep them in line.
While almost every Democrat from the south was a segregationist in the 1950’s and 1960’s (I have used the pages of this website and other publications to previously defend Governor Leroy Collins among others on the charge that they were not great men because they supported racial segregation, but Collins and even those like George Smathers and Farris Bryant in this state were NOWHERE near the level of Jim Eastland in terms of racial rhetoric), Eastland was a unique breed and the most powerful person in the legislative branch of government. Countless deaths took place because of Eastland’s attitude and ability to kill almost any piece of progressive legislation. The only person who could stop Eastland in the country was US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican whose progressive court rulings finally broke the back of southern resistance along with Lyndon Johnson’s legislative brilliance.
By the time Biden got elected to the Senate in 1972, the outright racist rhetoric of Eastland (best on display for younger audiences in the HBO movie on Lyndon Johnson, All The Way, which not only showed Eastland’s naked racism but how creative LBJ had to get to in order to move Civil Rights past his committee “graveyard.”) had been replaced by arguments cloaked in respectability about school busing. That issue led Governor George Wallace to win every county in Florida outside of Dade and Alachua in the 1972 Florida Primary and even after being shot in Maryland, allowed Wallace to give a defiant speech at that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Miami.
It is on this issue of school busing, Biden sought to make common cause with Eastland. Biden knew who and what Eastland was, yet still tried to cultivate him for his own purposes. That’s highly disturbing.
I understand Biden’s explanations on the surface- in 1972 when he was elected some of the most senior members of the Democratic caucus had been strong racial segregationists. Many forget today that a larger percentage of Democrats voted against LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 than Republicans, because the vast majority of elected officials in the south were in 1964 as they were still in 1972, Democrats. In order to be effective within the caucus working with the right-wing of the party was important. So when Senator Corey Booker initially raised the issue earlier this week I blew it off.
However, now having read the transcripts of some of the correspondence between Biden and Eastland, I am deeply disturbed. It appears Biden was dedicated to sucking up to Eastland by pushing through legislation opposing school busing.
For example according to the records released this week on June 30, 1977, Biden wrote to Eastland: “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote.” As The New York Times reported this week, Biden quickly became a favorite of Eastland’s.
By the time Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, Eastland’s work was winding down. Richard Russell the dean of southern resistance to Civil Rights had passed on (It’s important to note Russell always used legal arguments against integration while Eastland, often used crude rhetoric and publicly would subtly condone violence by whites against African-Americans), Strom Thurmond had become a Republican and the likes of Herman Talmadge and Russell Long had decided they needed to court black voters to keep winning elections. But Eastland never courted African-American voters, never conceded he was wrong on segregation, never conceded he was wrong on the rigged court system and lack of justice African-Americans received in Mississippi or nationally. He was an unabashed racist, from his birth to his grave.
Democrats like to think of Donald Trump as a racist – but Trump is truthfully Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey (someone Trump confidante Roger Stone wants posthumously pardoned strangely enough) when compared to Eastland. The extent of Biden’s Eastland relationship while 40 plus years old is a troubling revelation. It shows a young politician willing to suck up to power by any means necessary, even if that power is a decidedly immoral man.
Biden’s record since the 1980’s has been very good Civil Rights, though Trump would argue he had to undo the Crime Bill with his own criminal justice reform that the President will claim benefits African-Americans. But his Eastland embrace is a clear sign that once upon a time he was willing to play the race game for his own benefit, which makes him not too dissimilar from Trump. In fact as bad as Trump is, I am not sure he’d openly embrace an Eastland character the way Biden did – maybe he would, but it’s possible he’d for political purposes keep his distance.
Biden has to come clean on this at least for my liking and I am sure for many others. Or apologize and say he was young and naive or something of the sort. Just give those of us trying to be open-minded something Otherwise, he might just not be up for the job of President of the United States.