Once he arrived in the Senate in the early 1970s, Biden prioritized the fight against busing to integrate public schools, pushing for an amendment that he said would expose liberal doubts about the practice. In a Philadelphia Inquirer article in 1975, Biden said, “I think I’ve made it possible for liberals to come out of the closet.” When he was running for reelection in 1978, the Wilmington Morning News wrote that “the only substantive legislation bearing Biden’s name to reach the nation’s law books is the Biden-Eagleton Amendment, which has shut down efforts by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to achieve busing for school desegregation.”
Biden had placed himself firmly on one side of one of the fiercest fights about race of the 1970s (a position a spokesperson said in March he still stands by). He spoke often about how he did not believe in the theory behind busing—that there was a greater good achieved by that method of forcing integration. As he put it in a November 1976 speech, according to the News Journal, “black kids don’t want to come to your school any more than you want to go to their school.”
Biden argued that he was just pursuing common-sense solutions when he pushed back on liberals’ support for busing, along with racial quotas in schools. But he was making unsavory allies along the way. When he became chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1980—a position for which Eastland had backed him—Biden said he wouldn’t fight over busing with Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator and famous segregationist who’d become a friend. But, he told the News Journal in 1980, “if Strom Thurmond is serious about eliminating the Voting Rights Act, I’m going to fight it. I’ll be visible in that fight.”
News accounts at the time suggest that Biden was not integrally involved in crafting the reauthorization of the VRA. One referred to him as playing “second fiddle” in the process. But they do credit him with arranging a meeting between civil-rights activists and then–Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in a move that helped get the bill passed and onto then-President Ronald Reagan’s desk.
Biden believes actions like these demonstrate his true character. He supported making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, calling the leader “the social conscience of this nation.” And he opposed Jeff Sessions’s 1986 nomination to a federal judgeship over his comments calling groups like the NAACP un-American.
“People have tremendous difficulty accepting how could I be for civil rights and against busing,” Biden told the Morning News in August 1986. He said he was just being practical, seeking compromise. “I’ve always viewed my role, what I’ve done best in the Senate, as one of the guys who kept the pendulum in the middle,” Biden said.
That February, Biden had given a similar nonideological pitch in Birmingham, Alabama, as he prepared for his 1988 presidential run. Introduced by then-Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama, who said Biden had “enthralled” attendees at Stennis’s birthday party three years earlier because he “understands the South,” Biden gave a version of his stump speech, though he tinkered with the section focused on race. He told the crowd that he felt like the time for apologies was past. “A black man has a better chance in Birmingham than in Philadelphia or New York,” he said, according to a report in the Morning News from that evening.