Biden Marks Landmark Desegregation Anniversary as Black Support Slips

President Biden commemorated the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on Thursday, meeting with plaintiffs and their families at the White House as he tries to shore up support among Black Americans, who helped deliver him the White House in 2020.

Mr. Biden thanked the litigants for their sacrifice in being part of what would become a major legal landmark — that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

“He recognized that back in the ’50s, in the ’40s, when Jim Crow was still running rampant, that the folks that you see here were taking a risk when they signed on to be part of this case,” Cheryl Brown Henderson, one of the daughters of Oliver L. Brown, a lead plaintiff, told reporters after the meeting.

The Oval Office meeting was one of a series of events planned over the next several days to highlight Mr. Biden’s commitment to the Black community. The outreach culminates on Sunday with a highly anticipated commencement address at the prestigious Morehouse College, one of the oldest of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Mr. Biden plans to underscore past victories for Black Americans while also boosting the achievements that he has delivered, White House officials said, citing a 60 percent increase in Black household wealth and the lowest Black unemployment rate ever, last year.

“We’re not just talking about history, like we are doing today with the Brown and related cases, but how indeed the president’s making history every single day,” said Stephen K. Benjamin, senior adviser to Mr. Biden and director of public engagement.

But it’s not clear that Mr. Biden’s efforts are resonating. A new set of polls in five crucial battleground states shows deep frustration among young, Black and Hispanic voters that threatens to unravel the president’s Democratic coalition.

His upcoming speech at Morehouse comes at a time when discontent over the war in Gaza has broken out on campuses nationwide. But at Morehouse, which has a legacy of civil rights protests and is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, such debates have not played out quite so publicly.

Representative James E. Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose 2020 endorsement helped resurrect Mr. Biden’s campaign, said that he believes the erosion of Black support for Mr. Biden has been overblown.

Mr. Biden’s policies, Mr. Clyburn said, are meaningful — particularly his efforts to eliminate lead pipes that have poisoned Black children for decades and lowering insulin costs for a population that has a higher rate of death from diabetes. And he said measures like eliminating billions in student loan debt would resonate at a school like Morehouse.

“Joe Biden’s relationship with Black people is really solid,” Mr. Clyburn said. “Black people see in Joe Biden the kind of presidency that they would like to have.”

White House officials said Thursday’s meeting with the plaintiffs from Brown v. Board of Education was similar to steps Mr. Biden has taken in the past to highlight the people behind pivotal moments in civil rights history. But it was particularly notable given that Mr. Biden has long held complicated views on the issue of desegregation.

When Mr. Biden was a junior senator in Delaware, he was a leading opponent of busing, a major vehicle for integrating schools — something Kamala Harris called him out for during the 2020 campaign, before she became his vice-presidential pick.

“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Ms. Harris said in a 2019 debate. “And that little girl was me.”

In a 1975 interview, Mr. Biden said, “We’ve lost our bearings since the 1954 Brown vs. school board desegregation case,” as he made the case that the country should find other ways to meet the needs of a long-disenfranchised population than forcing children into other neighborhoods. He called busing “asinine.”

In his 2007 memoir, Mr. Biden wrote, “I was against busing to remedy de facto segregation owing to housing patterns and community comfort, but if it was intentional segregation, I’d personally pay for helicopters to move the children.”

The Brown litigants had visited the White House before, under President Barack Obama, but Mr. Biden’s public embrace of their stories comes at a moment when Black history is under attack, said Janai S. Nelson, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“If we think about those who actually sacrificed — people who were not part of an institutional army, but were a self-appointed army of transformers, everyday citizens who decided to take one of the biggest risks any person could take in that moment, and that was to be a Black person defying a system that was designed for their own subjugation,” she said. “And they did it. They did it with daring, they did it with courage. And we don’t sing their praises as loudly as we should.”

Zach Montague contributed reporting.

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