ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden stepped back in time on Monday at a South Carolina diner, standing in the footsteps of men who peacefully played a role in desegregating the South on a day packed with political events.
Amid shaking hands and posing for countless pictures, Biden interrupted a reporter’s interview to sneak up behind W.T. “Dub” Massey, 74, at the counter of Five and Dine, a restaurant in downtown Rock Hill, a small city on the outskirts of metropolitan Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I’m thunderstruck!” Massey said with a laugh, adding he never would have imagined the powerful politician shaking his hand. Biden was making the stop on behalf of a former staffer, Fran Person, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney in the fall.
Back in 1961, Massey was one of nine black men who were arrested for integrating a whites-only lunch counter in what was then McCrory’s variety store.
Convicted of trespassing and breach of peace, the men opted for a month’s hard labor in a chain gang rather than allow bail money to be posted for them by civil rights groups, not wanting to contribute to segregationists’ coffers. Last year, amid renewed interest in their case, a judge vacated their arrests and convictions.
Seated Monday at that same lunch counter alongside Person, Biden recalled his memories of “the Nine.” He called their struggle part of “the beginning of the end of institutionalized segregation.”
“I remember the Nine,” Biden said, standing by the very stool that Massey sat in more than 50 years ago.
As a high school senior, Biden told Massey, he had just started to get involved in the civil rights movement. “You guys were an inspiration. … We owe you, buddy.”
Biden has had a long-term relationship with South Carolina, vacationing here frequently with family and often huddling with some of the state’s notable Democrats. On Monday, one of them bemoaned the vice president’s decision not to again seek the White House for himself.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman. A major Biden backer, Harpootlian had joined in a fundraiser with Biden for Person’s campaign. “He, in my opinion, would be 20 pts ahead of Trump right now, and we wouldn’t be in the nip and tuck race we are.”
At the Five and Dine, asked about Hillary Clinton’s recent pneumonia diagnosis and stumble Sunday at a commemorative 9/11 event, Biden said the nominee “should have listened to the doctors, for God’s sake” and rested, not campaigned.
Clinton’s doctor, Lisa R. Bardack, released a statement saying Clinton was given antibiotic and “advised to rest and modify her schedule.” Campaign manager Robbie Mook later told CNN that Clinton chose “to just power through” the illness and did not lose consciousness during the episode.
Harpootlian called the fallout “the kind of stumble, literally, that can put a huge huge dent” in a campaign.
Before heading to Fort Mill, Biden spoke at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, where he discussed efforts by the Obama administration to help businesses and community colleges expand the middle class.
Later Monday, Biden is scheduled to speak at a Democratic Governors Association event in Raleigh that will be attended by Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current attorney general.
Next week, Mulvaney is holding a fundraiser in his hometown of Indian Land with fellow South Carolinian U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/