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How Joe Biden Became the Democrats? Anti-Busing Crusader

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
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Sheryl Gay StolbergNEWPORT
Kamala Harris
Jim Crow
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Gary Orfield
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Martin Luther King
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Jesse Helms
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The New York Times
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He arrived in Washington in 1973, having come of age amid the racial ferment of the late 1960s, with deep ties to Wilmington’s black community — relationships rooted in his advocacy for housing integration and other forms of urban aid in a state still grappling with the legacy of Jim Crow.Mr. Biden has said that his record on school desegregation has been misrepresented, and he maintains that he supported busing as a remedy for the intentionally discriminatory policies that kept white and black students in separate schools in the South — a position his campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, reaffirmed on Sunday in a statement to The Times. Civil rights advocates note that students had, of course, been riding buses to school for decades; opponents of court-ordered busing never raised a ruckus when black children were forced to ride buses miles away from their homes to attend “colored-only” schools.“I oppose busing,” Mr. Biden said in a lengthy television interview entered into the Congressional Record in 1975. At a time when busing controversies were provoking racial unrest in cities like Boston, Mr. Biden argued that housing integration — which would take much longer to implement than a busing plan — was a far better way to desegregate public schools.“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota-systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school,” Mr. Biden told the television interviewer.“That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with,” he added. He recruited a group of 11 black students to try to enroll in an all-white high school in Milford, a city south of Wilmington, one of the more conservative areas of the state.Orlando Camp was one of the so-called “Milford 11.” Mr. Camp, who until then had been bused to an all-black school even farther from his home, said he still remembered the racist vitriol from the all-white crowds in Milford.“The first day was fine,” Mr. Camp said. Today, he cites the Gurney vote in defending his record on school desegregation, insisting that he backs busing to eliminate intentional “de jure” segregation, but not “de facto” segregation.“I’ve always been in favor of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation,” Mr. Biden said recently.But Professor Orfield, who has done extensive research on the Wilmington school district in his role as co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the de jure-de facto distinction is a canard, because courts did not have authority to order busing unless they found proof of intentional segregation.Mr. Biden’s Gurney vote did not go over well with the angry crowd that had gathered in the school auditorium to confront him on that July night in 1974, and by the end of that year it seemed the senator’s anti-busing views were hardening.In a December 1974 speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Biden said he had become “more and more disenchanted with busing as a remedy,” whether or not segregation was intentional. Mr. Helms wanted to strip the agency of that power.As Mr. Biden rose on the Senate floor in September 1975 to embrace that approach, Mr. Helms wryly welcomed him “to the ranks of the enlightened.” Mr. Biden objected to the education department mandating desegregation absent a court order, and warned of white flight to the suburbs and even racial unrest.“You have to open up avenues for blacks without closing avenues for whites,” Mr. Biden said in the 1975 television interview, adding, “You put more money into the black schools for remedial reading programs, you upgrade facilities, you upgrade opportunities, you open up housing patterns.”Unless such steps were taken, he said, “we are going to end up with the races at war.”“This is the real problem with busing,” Mr. Biden went on. He called it “the greatest setback to civil rights since 1964.”In 1976, Mr. Biden turned his attention to the next front: the courts.In the Senate, he introduced legislation to bar the Justice Department from pursuing desegregation cases that might result in court-ordered busing, alarming lawyers in its Civil Rights Division.“He was no friend of the work we were doing, I’ll put it that way,” said one of those lawyers, Ted Shaw, who handled school desegregation cases at the department and is now a professor of law at the University of North Carolina.Mr. Biden prodded Solicitor General Robert H. One measure would have stripped federal courts of their jurisdiction over desegregation entirely — an approach that would have pushed school desegregation cases into the hands of state judges, who were highly unlikely to issue busing orders.Mr. Shaw, who later served as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., called it a “court-stripping bill.” He said that, while he would not rule out voting for Mr. Biden in the presidential race, “I also don’t think he gets a pass.”None of those measures became law, and though Mr. Biden continued to press his anti-busing agenda into the early 1980s, the Wilmington district eventually integrated after a final federal court ruling in 1978, and the furor subsided.Three years later, at a Senate hearing on busing, William Taylor, a civil rights lawyer who had been advising the Wilmington School Board on integration, spoke to Mr. Biden’s trepidations about busing, though the senator was not there to hear him.“I am sorry Senator Biden is not here, but I would say specifically as someone who has been involved in Wilmington that despite all the dire predictions that were made before that plan was implemented, it has gone very well,” Mr. Taylor said. The State Legislature has since passed a law stating every child should attend the school closest to their home, which was seen as the death blow for the final vestiges of the state’s busing era.Schools in Wilmington have become more racially segregated since that time; a study by Professor Orfield’s group at U.C.L.A. on school segregation in Delaware between 1989 and 2010 found that “significant and rising portions of the state’s black students enroll in segregated schools that are very isolated by both race and socioeconomic status.”One Wilmington school is now named after Mr. Redding, the civil rights lawyer who handled the city’s desegregation cases.

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