When President Joe Biden went to Georgia to press for voting rights legislation, he made a passing reference to a moment from his past — the time he "got arrested" while protesting for civil rights.
It’s not the first time Biden has said he was arrested in his youth while protesting for civil rights. And it’s not the first time that the evidence to back up his assertion is scarce. He’s been called out repeatedly for decades by fact-checkers, including PolitiFact, for exaggerating his experiences with the civil rights movement and his interactions with law enforcement.
Biden invoked the civil rights battles of the 1960s as he spoke on a campus shared by Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, two historically black colleges.
"I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds," he said. "But I walked other grounds. Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well." This drew laughs from the crowd. "You think I’m kidding, man. It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested. Anyway."
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We reached out to the White House to clarify what arrest he was referring to, and they pointed to excerpts from three speeches Biden has made in recent years. They addressed an incident in Delaware in the 1950s in which people gathered to protest the sale of a home to a Black couple.
Police were called to the home as hundreds of people protested outside. There were a few arrests, but no evidence that Biden was among them.
How Biden described the incident
In the earliest of those speeches, at the Economic Club of Southwest Michigan on Oct. 16, 2018, Biden discussed the episode in the context of joining the ticket of Barack Obama, who would become the first Black president. Biden recalled the 2008 exchange with his mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan, who was then in her 90s:
"She said, ‘Joey, didn't I call you about a month ago and ask you about Barack?’ I said, ‘Yeah, mom.’ She said, ‘Didn't you say to me you thought he was really bright and had a great deal of integrity and would make a good president if he was the nominee?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
"She said, ‘Joey, remember at 15 years old and that real estate agent sold a house to the Black couple in Lynnfield.’ … This was in suburban sprawl, the neighboring neighborhood. ‘I told you not to go down there because of the protests, and you went down and you got arrested because you were standing on the porch with the Black couple?’ I said, ‘Yeah, mom. I remember that.’"
Biden again used the word "arrested" when describing what his mother said about thday in another speech at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Nevada on Feb. 16, 2020.
But Biden has not always used the term "arrest" when telling this story.
On Dec. 13, 2018, during remarks at the University of Utah, he recounted his mother saying, "Remember I told you not to go down, and the police brought you back because you were standing on the front porch with the Black couple?"
He used similar language in quoting his mother — the police "brought you home," rather than "arrested" him — during a Zoom interview with Oprah Winfrey on Oct. 28, 2020, the Washington Post Fact Checker reported.
Biden did not mention getting arrested when he recalled the discussions around joining the ticket with Obama in his 2017 memoir, "Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose."
What does the documentary evidence show?
Contemporary newspaper articles confirm that there were protests at two homes near where Biden was growing up in Delaware in 1959. The larger one in Collins Park was at the home of a Black couple. The second, in suburban Carrcroft, was held at the home of the real estate broker who had sold that couple their home.
The News-Journal, a Wilmington newspaper, reported on Feb. 25, 1959, that seven arrests followed the protest at the Collins Park home — three men for disturbing the peace and four teenagers for possessing fireworks.
An Associated Press article on March 2, 1959, said that a 17-year-old — described as the son of a "Harold Figgett" — arrested for juvenile delinquency was among four people arrested that Saturday. (Biden would have been 16 at the time.) It also mentions the seven earlier arrests. No arrests were made at the Carrcroft home protest, the AP reported.
So there’s evidence that protests over racial discrimination in housing occurred in the general proximity of Biden’s home when he was a teenager. Biden’s home in Lynnfield was about 9 miles from the Collins Park home and a short walk away from the Carrcroft home, according to Google Maps.
Was Biden arrested?
There is no record of Biden being arrested.
Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University law professor, said that if the police arrived to break up a disturbance, told everyone to disperse, offered to drive some of the people home, and Biden agreed to be driven home, then the ride would have been consensual and thus definitively not an arrest.
If the officer instead made clear to Biden that he did not have a choice and would be forcibly placed into the squad car if he refused, then Biden would have been "seized." Not all seizures are arrests, Simmons said, but the argument for calling it an arrest would be stronger.
However, Simmons added that this is a hyper-legal definition of arrest. It would be "very unlikely," he said, that an ordinary person would consider being driven home by the police in this scenario — without a booking at the police station or any involvement with the courts — to be an "arrest."
"If anything, Biden's experience seems like the police officer made a conscious decision not to arrest — whether because Biden was a juvenile, or because the officer was sympathetic to Biden's motivation, or because Biden's actions did not constitute probable cause to believe a crime occured," Simmons said. "So I think to call this an ‘arrest’ in the lay sense of the term is an exaggeration, to say the least. It would be more accurate to say he had a run-in with police, or that he was involved in an event in which the police had to intervene."
Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, added that how Biden perceived the events might be quite different from how outsiders would perceive them.
"While being driven home by the police probably isn’t viewed as an arrest by the police, it may feel that way to a young person," Osler said.
Previous controversies over Biden’s claims about civil rights activism
This is not the first time Biden has been challenged over whether he has been arrested in events surrounding civil rights.
At a campaign event in 2020, he said he had been arrested in South Africa in 1977 while attempting to see the then-imprisoned Black leader Nelson Mandela. PolitiFact rated this Pants on Fire. After multiple outlets fact-checked this claim, Biden clarified that he had been separated at the airport from a Black delegation he was traveling with.
Biden has also been accused of embellishing his activism in the 1960s. During his 1988 campaign for president, Biden told crowds that he marched in the civil rights movement. Even though his advisers, according to the New York Times, "gently reminded" him that he hadn’t, Biden continued to make the claim.
Then, during his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden told viewers of a virtual town hall with the NAACP that he "got involved in the civil rights movement. Desegregating restaurants, that kind of thing." The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker gave that claim Two Pinocchios, writing that "as far as we can determine, Biden participated in just one walk-out at one restaurant."
Biden has twice made claims of being arrested for less serious reasons — once when he accompanied two women to their Ohio University dorm in 1963, and another time when he said he wandered onto the floor of the U.S. Senate as a 21-year-old. In both cases, he revised the story.
Biden said that as a youth, "I got arrested" protesting for civil rights.
Biden may have participated in one of two flare-ups over racial discrimination in housing that occurred near his home in Delaware when he was in a teenager. However, there is no evidence that Biden was actually arrested in the sense of being booked at a police station and facing any consequences in the criminal justice system. At times, Biden himself has described the police’s actions as driving him home, rather than putting him under arrest.
We rate the statement False.
Caryn Baird contributed to this article.