Former vice president Joe Biden made an odd reference to boll weevils, harkening back to the days of slavery, while addressing an African-American church audience on Sunday.
The Scranton, Pennsylvania native, born in 1942 long after slavery was abolished in 1863, made a presidential campaign stop in Jackson, Mississippi on Sunday. He paid a visit to New Hope Baptist Church.
“I’m going to get clobbered for saying this,” the presidential candidate told the congregation, “but we kinda got a boll weevil we gotta get rid of.” He was referring to his political archenemy, President Donald Trump.
Did he have a flashback or dementia attack, believing he was addressing enslaved cotton pickers on a plantation in the South? Was his intention even more insidious and condescending, or just racist?
The boll weevil is a type of beetle which became famous for destroying cotton fields on slave plantations by feeding on cotton buds and flowers.
Ned Cobb , an African-American tenant farmer born in Tallapoosa County in Alabama to a slave, told historian Theodore Rosengarten in 1969 about his experience with the insect.
“These white folks down here told the colored people, if you don’t pick them cotton squares off the ground and destroy them boll weevils, we’ll quit furnishing you. Told ’em that? Putting the blame on the colored man for the boll weevil comin’ in this country.”
He worked hard to prevent his own crops from being destroyed by the boll weevil epidemic and the collapse of cotton prices.
“But, you couldn’t keep your fields clean? Boll weevil schemin’ to eat your crop faster than you workin’ to get him out. Yes, all God’s dangers ain’t a white man,” he said.
Boll weevil was also used as a political term to describe conservative Southern Democrats in the mid-1900s, who were known for their opposition to civil rights.
The average African American living in Mississippi today never picked cotton, but may have known of the historic impact of the boll weevil. The gaffe-prone candidate has been hammered by political observers since local TV station WLBT posted the footage of his speech on Twitter.
It turns out the church pastor, Dr. Jerry Young, had addressed the congregation earlier that morning, noting that difficult times lead to progress. He recalled that when cotton crops became infected by the boll weevil, farmers planted peanut crops instead. The switch is credited with enriching many farmers in the South.
Biden simply picked up the metaphor in reference to Trump, adding, “We’re not gonna replace it with peanut, we’re going to replace it with hope.”
Biden also credited the African American audience for his impressive political comeback on Super Tuesday, when his campaign seemed all but dead. He won nine states, including Texas, and African American voters propelled him to victory in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Just a week earlier, his campaign was struggling after poor showings in the first three nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. He was trailing badly behind then front runner Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
“You’re the reason I’m back, nobody else. You’re the reason,” Biden said.