Tensions raised in Biden campaign over segregationist comments, letters: report

Supporters of Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE's campaign for president are reportedly at odds over how Biden should handle a newfound controversy over remarks that some Democrats saw as praise of segregationist senators whom Biden served with in the 1970s and '80s.

In particular, Biden was chastised for remarking that former Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.) never called him "boy," only "son."

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“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’ ” said Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-N.J.), a black Democrat and fellow contender for the party's 2020 nomination for president. “Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity."

The Washington Post reported Thursday that some of Biden's supporters are unsatisfied with the explanation the campaign gave Thursday for Biden's remarks, in which he pointed to his working relationship with two Democratic senators who supported segregation, calling it an example of "civility."

“I think he’s got to address it head on and show people what his line of thinking was,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist close to Biden’s team in South Carolina, told the Post. “I don’t think they need to get off course with their strategy. I just think they have to address it as it comes up and move on.”

Others reportedly argued that Biden misspoke and that he understands the historical pejorative use of the term "boy" toward African Americans.

“He just misspoke,” one adviser to the campaign told the Post. “The way Biden usually tells the story, he says Eastland didn’t call him ‘senator,’ he called him ‘son,’ ” the adviser said. “Eastland called him ‘boy’ and ‘son’ also. This was Eastland’s way of diminishing young senators.”

Still, others argued that Biden should hold his ground on the issue and declare his support for maintaining civility on Capitol Hill.

“I encouraged campaign staff that I know to say: ‘Don’t back off on this. This is precisely why you’re the right guy in the right place at the right time.’ And I was glad to see that he didn’t,” Dave O’Brien, a Democratic activist in Iowa, told the Post.

“You know that some of the other issues, he’s got to evolve with the times, which he has,” O’Brien told the Post. “But there are points where you need to make a stand, so I was very glad to see him not back off on this issue.”

The Hill has reached out to Biden's campaign for comment on the internal divisions over his remarks. On Thursday, campaign spokeswoman Symone SandersSymone SandersDemocratic contenders unload on news media Biden's gaffes pile up, worrying some supporters Sanders campaign official praises Harris over clash with Biden on civil rights record MORE called attacks from Biden's fellow 2020 contenders "disingenuous."

"[Biden] did not praise a segregationist. That is a disingenuous take. He basically said sometimes in Congress, one has to work with terrible or down right racist folks to get things done. And then went on to say when you can't work with them, work around them," Sanders, who served as fellow 2020 Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE's (I-Vt.) communication director in 2016, tweeted.

"I am all here for VALID CRITICISM, but suggesting that Joe Biden — the man who literally ran for office against an incumbent at 29 because of the civil rights movement, the man who was at the forefront of marriage equality before it was politically popular, the man who served as President Obama's VP, the man who literally launched his 2020 campaign calling out Nazis in Charlottesville along with Trump's equivalency — suggesting he is actively praising a segregationist is just a bad take and a willfully disingenuous act," she added in subsequent tweets.

Letters obtained by the Post disputed Sanders's characterization of Biden's early days in the Senate, however, and depicted the younger Biden as eager to work with Eastland, an outspoken racist who opposed integration, on a bill to stop busing or the process of deliberately integrating schools with majority-white populations.

“My bill strikes at the heart of the injustice of court-ordered busing,” Biden reportedly wrote to Eastland in 1977. “It prohibits the federal courts from disrupting our educational system in the name of the constitution where there is no evidence that the governmental officials intended to discriminate.”

“That was the first time the U.S. Senate took a firm stand in opposition to busing,” he added. “The Supreme Court seems to have recognized that busing simply cannot be justified in cases where state and local officials intended no discrimination.”

In another letter to Eastland later that year, Biden thanked the senator, writing: “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my antibusing legislation to a vote."

Updated at 8:55 a.m.