Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET
The day after former Vice President Joe Biden recalled his "civil" and productive working relationships decades ago with two longtime segregationist and racist fellow lawmakers, fellow Democrats are pouncing.
At a New York City fundraiser Tuesday night, Biden told donors he has reached across the aisle throughout his career. "I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland," Biden said, according to a pool report. "He never called me 'boy'; he always called me 'son.' "
"Well, guess what? At least there was some civility," Biden said, also pointing to a working relationship he forged with Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, another segregationist Democrat. "We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you're the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don't talk to each other anymore."
Eastland represented Mississippi in the Senate for decades. He decried integration in public schools, the military and elsewhere and was a staunch opponent of civil rights legislation.
At the height of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark Montgomery bus boycott, Eastland told a segregationist rally that "In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking n*****s." According to Robert Caro's Master Of The Senate, Eastland went on to urge the crowd to "abolish the Negro race" with "guns, bows and arrows, slingshots, and knives."
"You don't joke about calling black men 'boys,' " New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of three black Democratic candidates for president, said in a statement Wednesday. "Vice President Biden's relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together."
Booker also said that he was disappointed Biden had not offered an immediate apology.
Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders responded to the criticism in a series of tweets, saying in part that 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 some things done."
.@JoeBiden 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.— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) June 19, 2019
Booker wasn't the only other 2020 candidate to weigh in.
California Sen. Kamala Harris told reporters at the Capitol, "I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Biden. He's done very good work, and he has served our country in a very noble way. But to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is, I think, it's just misinformed and it's wrong." Harris declined to say whether Biden should apologize for the comments.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that "it's past time for apologies or evolution from Joe Biden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party."
It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of “civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to “the pursuit of dead n*ggers." (1/2) pic.twitter.com/yoOOkpaTX2— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) June 19, 2019
Some of the sharpest criticism came from Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist married to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "That segregationist never called you 'boy' because you are white," she tweeted. "If you want to boast about your relationship with a racist, you are not who we need to succeed the racist in the White House."
Throughout his career, Biden has said the civil rights movement was his motivation for entering politics. He has framed his 2020 presidential campaign as a rescue mission of sorts for the United States' national character, pointing to President Trump's response to the deadly 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rallies as the moment he decided to enter the race.
Polls repeatedly show Biden with far more support from voters of color than any other Democratic candidate, and many African American voters say their main reason for backing him are his eight years as Barack Obama's vice president.
As Biden has maintained his double-digit lead on the rest of the 23-candidate field, fellow Democrats have begun to take increasingly vocal shots at Biden's moderate approach to governing. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both begun to routinely criticize incremental and "middle ground" Democratic policies, though both have made a point to, for the most part, avoid calling out Biden specifically.
Biden's reminiscence for his "civil" and productive relationship with Talmadge and Eastland moved the criticism from implicit to explicit — and did so a week before Biden will appear on a televised debate stage with nine other Democratic candidates.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former Vice President Joe Biden, once praised for being someone who can find common ground - the problem is the example he chose to cite at a fundraiser Tuesday night. Biden highlighted his collaboration with two U.S. senators who supported segregation and other racist policies. Biden's rivals for the Democratic nomination have come down hard on him as a result. But the former vice president says he's not going to apologize. Might this set the front-runner back ahead of the first round of debates? We're going to ask NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow, who's in the studio.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: First off, can you just give us the broader context for what Joe Biden said that has caused this stir?
DETROW: Yeah. He was making a point at this fundraiser about how he's been criticized for trying to work with Republicans. And he brought up this working relationship he had with Mississippi Senator James Eastland and Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge. They were Democrats, but they were staunch segregationists. That's to say, they pushed for policies that kept people separated based on race, and they opposed things like civil rights legislation.
Talking about Eastland in particular, Biden said, he never called me boy; he always called me son. He also said, at least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done.
You know, Eastland in particular was an unapologetically racist lawmaker. There are some really shocking quotes from him during the Montgomery bus boycott, talking about Martin Luther King and other marchers in very graphic terms and actually talking about abolishing the African-American race. Those are the words he used.
MARTIN: Wow. So he wants praise for collaborating with these lawmakers. His Democratic rivals in the race for the White House have come down pretty hard on him.
DETROW: Yeah. Cory Booker was one of the first fellow candidates to come out with some criticism. This was a little bit surprising on one hand because Booker is not really a Democrat who goes on attack against other Democrats. But it was also not surprising because Cory Booker talks about the civil rights movement a lot. It's one of the core things he talks about campaigning for president. So Booker called for an apology. Here he was on CNN with Don Lemon.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN TONIGHT WITH DON LEMON")
CORY BOOKER: I know that somebody running for President of the United States, somebody running to be the leader of our party should know that using the word boy in the way he did can cause hurt and pain. And we need a presidential nominee and the leader of our party to be sensitive to that.
DETROW: California Senator Kamala Harris, another black candidate in the race - Booker and Harris are two of just three African-American U.S. senators - said this at the Capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KAMALA HARRIS: I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Biden. But to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who, if they had their way, I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate is, I think - it's just - it's misinformed, and it's wrong.
MARTIN: Is Biden responding to the criticism?
DETROW: You know, throughout the day yesterday, his campaign didn't really say much of anything. He was at another fundraiser last night, and reporters caught up with him after the event. Here's what happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you going to apologize like Cory Booker has called for?
JOE BIDEN: Apologize for what?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Cory Booker has called for it. He's asking you to apologize.
BIDEN: Cory should apologize. He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career - period, period, period.
DETROW: So, yeah, not only not apologizing but saying Booker is the one who needs to offer an apology. Biden supporters have repeatedly said, you know, the reason that he decided to get into the race, as he often talks about, is responding to the way that President Trump kind of equivocated after that Charlottesville white supremacist rally, saying that civil rights has been a key part of Joe Biden's long career in the Senate and as vice president.
MARTIN: So we're going to see this probably play out during the debates...
MARTIN: ...Next week. NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.
DETROW: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.