What a lifeguarding job on the black side of Wilmington taught Joe Biden about race
The furor about Joe Biden’s race politics started as soon as he decided to run for office. As a candidate for the New Castle County Council in 1970, he made expanding public housing central to his campaign. Angry white residents, worried that poor black families would become their neighbors, gave Biden a derisive nickname.
“The first time the phone rang and someone said, ‘You nigger lover, you want them living next to you,’ I was shocked,’’ Biden told the Wilmington News Journal at the time.
On the black side of Wilmington, residents weren’t surprised. They had been using that provocative phrase to describe Biden for years, but as a term of affection.
“Joe was one of us,” recalled Richard Smith, 71, a black resident whom everyone here knows as “Mouse.” “We helped make him who he was.”
As Biden makes his third run for the presidency, he is once again trying to navigate the tricky terrain of race. His Democratic opponents have accused him of being on the wrong side of busing and crime legislation, as well as being overly accommodating to segregationist senators.
Biden, who declined to comment for this story, has recently apologized for giving “the impression that I was praising” segregationists. In speeches, he emphasizes his tenure as second-in-command to the first black president while speaking in personal terms about his efforts to connect with African Americans.
His effort to personally wrangle with matters of race began even before his controversial turn on the county council, back when he was a 19-year-old teenager trying to figure out what he could do to bridge the racial divide.
His solution was to become a lifeguard at a predominantly African American pool in Wilmington. That’s where he met Mouse and others with nicknames such as Corn Pop, the Puerto Rican and Marty — friends who would shape his life and provide his formative experience in understanding black America.
“I was not out marching. I was not down in Selma or anywhere else,” Biden once said. “I was a suburbanite kid who got an exposure to black America in my own city.”
Biden applied for the lifeguard job after being transfixed by the brutal images of racial protests in the South. Other white students were figuring out ways to actively help in the struggle, but he wrote in his 2007 memoir that he realized something elementary was missing from his comprehension: He had no real relationships with black people.
Smith can still visualize the first time he saw Biden: a skinny 19-year-old with big sunglasses and brown hair, sporting a big smile and whistle around his neck, trying to discipline teenagers like Smith who were bouncing on the diving boards.
The pool back then had become overrun by neighborhood gangs, like the 13th Street Stompers, the Hornets and the Romans.
They loved pranking Biden. The cost to enter the pool was 10 cents, but a tiny, smack-talking teenager known as Corn Pop wanted to try a way to get his friends in free: distract the white lifeguard.
Corn Pop got Biden’s attention by talking about his mother, Smith recalled. Biden blew his whistle and demanded Corn Pop show him some respect. Meanwhile, Corn Pop’s friends jumped the fence, hopped into the water and laughed over their declared victory.
“They were testing him,” recalled Maurice Pritchett, known as Marty, who served as a lifeguard on the shift with Biden. “He had to earn their respect.”
Biden has said he was the only white lifeguard there at the time, but his friends from the pool recall that there were a handful of other white lifeguards on staff. Most had stopped working at the pool as more black kids began using it. The construction of Interstate 95 and other urban renewal programs in the late ’50s led to displaced black families moving east and settling in a nearby housing project known as the Bucket.
White families, along with their lifeguard sons, were moving away from the neighborhood. But Biden had come in.
Soon, he was playing basketball with the Romans when his shift ended, and others were inviting him to dinner. He’d stay until dark and, sometimes, the kids would push the used car he borrowed from his father up the hill so he could get home.
“Once he was out with us,” Smith said, “he never wanted to leave.”
“You just have to imagine it at the time,” Pritchett recalled. “White people just weren’t listening to anything what we had to say. And Biden, you could see it in his eyes, he wanted to know about us.”
As the kids in the neighborhood became more comfortable with Biden, they shared stories about being black in America. A fellow lifeguard told him he didn’t want to stop for gas on a trip to North Carolina because of what dangers might lurk for a black man at a station. They asked whether white girls were any different from black girls. They told him about the indignity of being forced to sit in the balcony of a movie theater.
The son of a car salesman, Biden wasn’t much better off financially than some of the boys at the pool. Most of the black lifeguards were studying in college, like he was. And yet, Biden said he learned to understand that the difference between how he was treated and how they were treated had to do with the color of his skin.
“It was a dozen small cuts a day,” Biden wrote in his memoir. “The stories my friends at the pool told were always tinged more with confusion and pain than outward anger.”
Biden took a special liking to Smith, a reform school student who was around six years his junior. Smith had a temper and a stutter and found it difficult to control either. But he said Biden had a solution.
“I used to get bullied for having a stutter,” he recalled Biden telling him. “Look into the mirror and practice talking. That’s how I got rid of mine.”
Smith took his advice and, eventually, the practice paid off. Their friendship continued when his summer was over.
“Mouse, are you in school?” Biden would ask whenever he was home from his studies at the University of Delaware. “Are you working?”
Smith kept some odd jobs here and there, but he was developing a growing interest in civil rights.
One day, in 1965, Smith told Biden that some politicians and preachers were going to picket outside the Rialto, the last segregated movie theater downtown.
“I’ll be there,” Biden said.
That was Biden’s first known civil rights protest.
Three years later, downtown Wilmington was in flames. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and, like many cities across the country in 1968, Wilmington broke out in riots. Gov. Charles Terry, a Democrat, called in the National Guard.
Months after the rioting quelled, officers were still patrolling the black neighborhoods with guns. Residents were forced to adhere to a curfew. For Biden, it was yet another example of the unfair treatment of black residents that he learned about at the pool. And unlike the protests in the South, this situation was happening right in front of him.
Biden has at times faced criticism for exaggerating his involvement in the civil rights movement. During his first presidential run, he told voters that he “was one of those guys that sat in, and marched, and all that stuff.” Facing pointed questions about those statements a few months later, he pulled them back. During the riots, he had chosen a different way to get involved.
Fresh out of Syracuse University College of Law, Biden tried to help by working as a public defender. He quit after about a year. The part-time job wasn’t very lucrative, and according to at least one of his old clients, Biden wasn’t very successful.
“Nice guy, but he couldn’t convince a judge,” recalled Errol “Mad Dog” Larkin, 73, in a phone interview with The Washington Post. Larkin ended up serving five years on a robbery conviction. “The jail had a lot of people who had him as their lawyer.”
Biden’s next move was to become a politician. He wrote that he felt he could push an agenda that would address unfair treatment in black communities, helping to bring the state’s conservative Democratic Party into the fold of the civil rights movement. But he could not do so without black votes.
He went to the Bucket to look for Smith.
“Mouse, you working?” Biden asked Smith one day.
Biden wanted to campaign in the projects and asked Smith to be his bodyguard. Smith saw his role, though, as more of an ambassador. He coached Biden on how to make a good impression.
“If you sit on a couch and a spring digs into your butt, don’t move,” Smith said he told him. “If a roach climbs on your shirt sleeves, keep talking. If a mouse comes over your feet, don’t move. If you get offered Kool-Aid in an old mayonnaise jar, drink it.”
Biden visited the projects and joined the NAACP. He would occasionally sit in on services at black churches and take in the festivities during Wilmington’s annual religious revival, the August Quarterly.
The angry phone calls from white voters came in, but Biden’s plan worked. He won the election. Days later, in a glowing profile of him in the News Journal, Biden was described as the handsome, progressive new face of the state Democratic Party. The article correctly speculated that in two years, at 29, he’d run for the U.S. Senate.
In the story, though, Biden showed a moderation that his opponents — and some of his supporters — did not expect after he campaigned on a civil rights agenda. Biden told the reporter he would not be a “crusading rabbit” who would make excuses for African Americans because of systemic racism. He used two hypothetical examples to make his case.
“I have some friends on the far left, and they can justify to me the murder of a white deaf mute for a nickel by five colored guys,” he told the Wilmington News Journal in 1970. “They say the black men had been oppressed and so on.
“But they can’t justify some Alabama farmers tar and feathering an old colored woman. I suspect the ACLU would leap to defend the five black guys. But no one would go down to defend the rednecks. They are both products of an environment. The truth is somewhere between the two poles.”
He spent more than 30 years in the Senate trying to find the in-between.
The senator’s first attempt to find that in-between came during the debates over federally mandated busing in the mid-1970s.
The liberal Democrats that Biden first hoped to emulate were describing busing as the latest civil rights issue, a bulwark against cities ignoring Brown v. Board of Education. But in Delaware, supporting the plan was complicated. White voters were against it, as were some vocal black community leaders who felt busing wouldn’t address the roots of inequality.
“If we wanted equality, it was better to find a way to end redlining,” activist Bebe Coker, who is black, remembered telling Biden, referring to the now-illegal practice in the real estate industry of limiting blacks to certain geographic areas. (Biden would eventually push a bill banning redlining.)
Jim Baker, a black city councilman who would go on to become mayor, said he urged Biden to actively fight the busing plan — even if he had to work with racists.
He didn’t care “about someone’s philosophy if they were working with you to get the job done,” Baker said. “In politics, you deal with the devil or God.”
Those were the arguments coming from some of the most respected leaders in the state. They were also coming from Biden’s friends from the pool. More than a decade had passed since the summer of 1962. Many of Biden’s friends had abandoned their gang ties to join the black power movement. To Smith, the idea that his children could only get a good education if they were taught next to white children was offensive.
“We already had schools,” Smith said. “The only problem was our books were old.”
In Washington, Biden cast himself as a “new liberal” who could articulate a controversial set of values: that you could vote with segregationists on a civil rights issue — in this case, busing — without being racist.
But a particularly hard thing for him to digest about racism was the stripping of a black person’s dignity. He supported Smith’s argument that forcefully integrating schools did not respect the autonomy of his black constituents.
“The concept of busing . . . is a rejection of the whole movement of black pride,” Biden said in a 1975 NPR interview recently unearthed by the Washington Examiner. “A rejection of the entire black awareness concept that black is beautiful and black culture should be studied, and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity, their own individuality. And I think that’s a healthy, solid proposal.”
Civil rights activists who supported busing, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, recalled watching Biden with fascination. Biden’s parsing on race issues would become a part of a pattern of behavior in which he would offer support to the black community but not really stray far from the mainstream.
Today, on the campaign trail, Biden recalls championing the extensions of the Voting Rights Act as a prime illustration of his continued support for black people. But those bills were already well-supported, passing by large majorities.
When he co-sponsored the crime bill in 1994, Biden appealed to his black constituents by putting more money into drug prevention and rehabilitation. But his calls for harsher penalties for drug dealers — he once demanded to “lock the S.O.B.s up” — helped drum up conservative support. Many experts contend that bill led to disproportionately high incarceration rates for black men.
“When it came to race and politics, the problem with Joe Biden is he always tried to play it both ways,” said Jackson, whom Biden called unqualified to be president when they both sought the Democratic nomination in 1988.
In 2007, in Biden’s second attempt for the presidency, he had to apologize to then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for describing him as the first black presidential candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean.” The comments only solidified a feeling that Biden was well-meaning but paternalistic when it came to issues of race.
Biden’s tenure as Obama’s vice president helped redeem him to many he had long aggrieved, which is why Jackson said he was caught off guard when Biden maintained his stance that busing in the 1970s didn’t work.
To Jackson, the proof that busing worked was right before him, every day on the campaign trail. Politics had become a new world since Biden first joined the fray. Two black senators, who weren’t even alive when the Voting Rights Act passed, were running for president and no one would question whether they were qualified.
And when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) suggested to Biden during a Democratic presidential debate last month that her education might have been in jeopardy if he had his way about busing, the audience exploded in approval of her well-placed takedown.
“I have lived long enough to see the fruits of my labor,” Jackson recalled thinking as he watched. “When Kamala took him on, [she] made us all proud.”
As Harris’s poll numbers surged, Smith found himself worried.
Fifty-seven years ago, Biden was his lifeguard. Now, he was scrambling to find any way he could to keep his best friend’s political career from drowning.
On an afternoon about a week after the debate, Smith acknowledged he had seen changes in Biden. His friend had “gotten slower, he’s not as quick on his feet. But we all have.”
Smith still lives around the area they once called the Bucket, across the street from the swimming pool. But the landscape has changed. A federal urban renewal grant pushed by Biden scraped clean the old projects and replaced them with single-family homes. The old swimming pool is now called the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center. The middle class had returned to the Bucket — a quieter, more suburban place than anyone alive could remember.
On this day, Smith jumped into his car and drove through Wilmington’s east side. He pointed to the homes that young white people had bought from black families. “Times were changing,” he said.
He pulled his car in front of an old friend’s house and began to gingerly walk up the stairs. He rang the bell and Dennis Williams, 66, came to the door. Back in the pool days, Williams often got into fights after being made fun of because of his light complexion. They called him the Puerto Rican.
“Mouse! How you doing?” Williams said.
“I’m just thinking about Joe,” Smith said.
“Oh, man, you remember that day Joe kicked me out of the pool?”
That led to the familiar swapping of old stories of pranking Joe, being disciplined by Joe, of fights and gangs and all that teenage bravado.
The guy they called Corn Pop grew up to be a security guard and recently died. Pritchett, who shared the lifeguard shift with Biden, became a state principal of the year. Smith became a union president and is a former head of the state NAACP. Williams became a detective, a Wilmington mayor and a state representative.
“Joe’s looked out for me,” Williams said. “That’s why I thought it was so disrespectful what Harris did to him on that stage.”
“She doesn’t understand the history,” Smith said.
“She’s from Berkeley isn’t she?” said Williams, dismissively.
Smith couldn’t feel so dismissive. Maybe, in today’s climate, Biden’s typical folksy anecdotes about life at the pool might not be enough to persuade voters. After the debate, Smith sent texts to everyone he knew on Biden’s campaign. The candidate needed to better speak the language on race, he told them.
“Please tell Joe to read ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. Du Bois or ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ by Martin Luther King,” said one text that Smith read to Williams.
“Do not let my friend go out there unprepared,” read another.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” Williams assured. “It will all blow over. He and Kamala will hug it out.”
“We have to protect him,” Smith said. “Because that’s what we do. You know he was the best man at my wedding?”
“Do you know he helped me with my stutter?
“Do you know . . . ”
“Do you know . . . ”
And the two old friends continued on, laughing and smiling as they told Biden stories from the past.