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WASHINGTON — Former vice president Joe Biden on Friday forcefully defended his record on civil rights after searing criticism at the Democrats’ debate the night before by Senator Kamala Harris for his actions on school busing in the 1970s and his recent comments about working with segregationists.

“I want to be absolutely clear about my record and position on racial justice including busing,” Biden said in a speech to a civil rights group in Chicago. “I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary busing.”

But Biden’s history on busing to integrate public schools — an initiative that roiled communities nationwide in the 1970s, none more so than Boston — is more complex than he made it appear. His carefully worded defense Friday contained several qualifications — including his use of the term “voluntary” busing — and failed to acknowledge his pivotal role in antibusing legislation as a young US senator from Delaware.

“It is on top of a kind of willed amnesia that Biden lays down his positions or articulates his antibusing philosophy,” said Brett Gadsden, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University who wrote a book about Biden and the busing controversy in Delaware.

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The controversy that sprang from Thursday night’s debate raised questions about whether the 76-year-old Biden can maintain his front-runner status in the 2020 race amid a series of incidents that have left him appearing to some as being out of touch with today’s Democratic Party.

“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” Harris asked Biden after getting moderators to let her join in an exchange on race and policing by noting she was the only black person among the 10 candidates on the debate stage.

Kamala Harris,7, in December 1971.
Kamala Harris,7, in December 1971.Kamala Harris Campaign

She made the issue personal, saying she was bused to school as a child when her class was only the second in Berkeley, Calif., to be integrated.

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“No,” Biden said, going on to explain that he was only opposed to busing ordered by the federal government.

After the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing separate but equal education, busing was used in some communities to balance the racial makeup of schools. School leaders in some parts of the country voluntarily bused students to desegregate, and others, such as Boston and Wilmington, Del., were ordered to do so by the courts.

Biden’s work on busing began after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. He ran on a platform that supported busing and at first allied himself with Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, a Republican and the first popularly elected black senator in the United States. Brooke was a proponent of busing as an imperfect solution to an urgent problem.

Biden, as he noted Friday, even provided a pivotal vote in 1974 that killed a proposed Senate amendment that would have prohibited federal courts from ordering school busing for desegregation.

But after Biden’s constituents in Delaware became alarmed at the prospect of busing, he softened his stance, eventually helping pave the way for the Senate to oppose the practice.

“His leadership was crucial in getting that antibusing legislation passed,” said Jason Sokol, an associate history professor at the University of New Hampshire who wrote a 2015 Politico Magazine story that chronicled how Biden played a pivotal role in turning liberals against busing.

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Sokol detailed how the House of Representatives had tried time and again to pass antibusing bills, but the Senate always blocked them. When Biden shifted his opinion, he helped shift the Senate’s position.

Biden, in the 1970s and this week, said he supported court-ordered busing in places where schools had been blatantly segregated, but not where segregation was a side effect of real estate practices and other policies that resulted in whites and people of color living in different areas.

But residential segregation occurred in places like Wilmington because of government policies as well, Gadsden said.

In a 1975 op-ed article in the Wilmington Sunday News Journal, Biden wrote that he favored techniques other than busing to foster racial equality such as working to end hiring, housing, and credit discrimination.

“All of this — and more — is part of what it means to find ‘alternatives’ to busing,” Biden wrote.

Gadsden said that position rings insincere.

“Housing segregation is something that has been even more vexing of a problem for the nation than school segregation,” he said.

Gadsden said he believes Biden is sincere when he talks about his support for the ideals of federal civil rights legislation.

“What gets lost or muddled is the extent to which Biden, like many Americans — like many white Americans, especially outside the bounds of the Jim Crow South — opposed affirmative actions to advance desegregation and other forms of racial equality in their communities,” he said.

Biden’s evolved stance in the 1970s put him at odds with Brooke, who also did not think busing was the best tactic, but supported it because other integration strategies had failed.

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“None of the people who were pro-busing thought that it was the greatest way of achieving integration,” Sokol said. “The problem was that all of the more voluntary measures, easier measures, had been rejected. Mostly by local officials like the school board in Boston.”

The controversy over Biden’s views on busing follows another last week that put him on the defense over racial issues. He told attendees of a fund-raiser that he worked with senators who supported segregation even though he disagreed with those views. His comments that they were able to work civilly together despite those differences — and the emergence of letters from the 1970s in which he thanked them for helping him with antibusing legislation — led to criticism from other 2020 Democratic candidates.

But it is unclear whether those events will erode Biden’s strong support among African-American voters, some of which comes from his having served with Barack Obama.

Biden spoke Friday at the annual convention in Chicago of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights group founded by Jesse Jackson, who is its president.

Earlier on Friday Jackson told CNN that Biden had been “on the wrong side” of the busing issue. But in introducing Biden at the convention, Jackson said he has “the stuff that it takes to make America better.”

Biden said he respects Harris, but “30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights,” he said.

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“I did support federal actions to address root causes of segregation in our schools and our communities, including taking on the banks and redlining and trying to change the way in which neighborhoods were segregated,” Biden said.

He touted his work on civil rights over the years, including as vice president under Obama.

“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” Biden said. “We should be talking about how we can do better.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.