Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden claimed he was arrested in the 1970s while trying to visit jailed South African civil rights campaigner Nelson Mandela. After critics called him out, his campaign now denies the claim.
Courting the black vote in South Carolina and Nevada this month. Biden brought up his 1970s visit to South Africa, taken when he was a Senator for Delaware. He told a South Carolina crowd that he “had the great honor of being arrested with our UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see [Mandela] on Robben Island.” At a black history awards event in Las Vegas last week, he claimed that Mandela himself later thanked him for his anti-apartheid efforts.
“He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you,’” Biden told the crowd. “I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr. President?’ He said: ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
Something was amiss. Soweto is more than 700 miles from Robben Island, the prison that held Mandela for 18 years. Furthermore, Andrew Young – the UN ambassador mentioned by Biden – told the New York Times that he was not arrested, and that “I don’t think he was either.”
With suspicion rising, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, revised the official story for the Times on Tuesday.
“He was separated from his party at the airport,” Bedingfield stated. “He was not allowed to go through the same door that the — the rest of the party he was with. Obviously, it was apartheid South Africa. There was a white door, there was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door and have the rest of the party go through the black door.”
A noble gesture, but a brief separation is a long way from getting arrested. Biden’s South African anecdote is not the first time the former Vice President has told tall tales about his past struggles for racial justice. Since the late 1980s, Biden claimed numerous times that he took part in civil rights marches during the 1960s, to “desegregate movie theaters and things like that.”
Though he said he took part in “marching” and “sit-ins,” there is no evidence that he ever participated in such revolutionary acts. In fact, when he was scrutinized for these claims during a short-lived presidential campaign in 1987, Biden admitted that while he was concerned for the struggle of black Amercians at the time, he “was not out marching.”
None of this has mattered to South Carolina’s black lawmakers. On Wednesday, Biden picked up the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D), a veteran congressman whose endorsement is considered key to winning the state’s black vote.
Biden may be a favorite in South Carolina, where African Americans make up more than 50 percent of all Democratic voters, but he has had a tougher primary season elsewhere. Once considered the clear frontrunner, Biden now trails progressive Senator Bernie Sanders in almost every national poll, and picked up only 20 percent of the vote at last weekend’s Nevada caucuses, compared to Sanders’ 46 percent.
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