CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday remembered Ernest F. Hollings as “a giant in this state and nation” who evolved to “write the great story of our times.”
Speaking at the funeral of Mr. Hollings, the former South Carolina senator who died this month at 97, Mr. Biden hailed his longtime friend and former colleague, a one-time segregationist, as the embodiment of this state’s growth.
“People can change,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Hollings, who was known as Fritz, adding, “We can learn from the past and build a better future.”
Mr. Biden’s trip here marked his first visit to an early nominating state this year and came just a week before he is expected to make his long-anticipated entry into the Democratic presidential primary.
His somber appearance at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college and Mr. Hollings’s alma mater, was not the 2020 debut the former vice president and his aides were planning. But his eulogy underscored Mr. Biden’s deep ties to this pivotal state with its high percentage of black voters — and the promise and peril of his candidacy.
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Mr. Biden once described Mr. Hollings as his best friend in the Senate. And as he recalled in strikingly subdued tones Tuesday, it was Mr. Hollings and his wife, Peatsy, who helped persuade him to remain in the Senate when his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was first elected in 1972.
“Aside from my family, the first people to bring me back from that black hole I was in were Fritz and Peatsy, that’s not hyperbole,” he said.
That friendship is what first brought Mr. Biden to South Carolina, where Mr. Hollings would introduce him to many of his political allies. Eventually, Mr. Biden began vacationing in the state, usually staying on one of the barrier islands near Mr. Hollings’s native Charleston. The relationships Mr. Biden developed here now form the nucleus of his support network in the first-in-the-South primary state.
Those connections were on vivid display as the former vice president stood before hundreds of mourners in the cadet chapel. It was an audience that included scores of influential state and local Democratic officials such as Representative James Clyburn, a fellow eulogist and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.
The funeral reflected the era of the man his admirers had come to honor, with gray hair filling the pews and sepia-toned memories flowing from the pulpit, recalling a lawmaker who was first elected to office in the aftermath of World War II and retired from the Senate 15 years ago.
Such older Americans here and beyond make up the core of Mr. Biden’s initial base, early polls indicate, and are the sort of reliable participants in primaries that candidates covet. The former Charleston mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., for example, attended the service and said in a brief interview that he intended to support Mr. Biden.
But as the former vice president extolled an earlier, less rancorous political time in his tribute to Mr. Hollings, the challenges he will face in this coming campaign were also difficult to miss.
Younger Democrats have little personal connection to Mr. Hollings and those who are aware of him recall that he began his career, like many other white politicians of his generation in the South, as a segregationist.
Mr. Biden, who is himself facing intense questions about his 1970s opposition to school busing, handled Mr. Hollings’s evolution on race delicately in his speech, referring only obliquely to the senator’s earlier support for segregation.
“He was constantly evolving,” said Mr. Biden, standing before a Citadel choir that was made up equally of black and white members.
With his penchant for poetry and blarney, the former vice president has emerged as a sort of national eulogist in chief. And Mr. Hollings was not the first South Carolina political icon Mr. Biden has honored: In 2003, he delivered a eulogy for Strom Thurmond, a longtime Republican senator and onetime Dixiecrat nominee for president.
But Mr. Biden, who was closer personally to Mr. Hollings, used that speech to talk much more extensively how about how Mr. Thurmond “moved to the good side.”
On Tuesday, it fell to Mr. Clyburn to speak in more detail about how Mr. Hollings went from defending “separate but equal” as a young state legislator to, as governor, telling state lawmakers that “we have run out of courts” and supporting the integration of Clemson University.
“Thank God a man can grow,” said Mr. Clyburn, his voice breaking. “Fritz grew and I grew along with him.”
Neither he nor Mr. Biden mentioned the fact that the Confederate flag was raised atop South Carolina’s Capitol dome by a state legislator in 1961 when Mr. Hollings was governor. The flag would remain on the Statehouse grounds until 2015, when it was removed in the aftermath of the racist killing of black parishioners at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church.
“He put the Confederate flag on the Statehouse that we had to fight to take down,” said Melissa Watson, a Charleston-area teacher and local Democratic official who is black. Ms. Watson praised Mr. Hollings as “a statesman” but said he changed his views on race because “he didn’t have a choice.”
Mr. Hollings was elected to the Senate in 1966, a year after the Voting Rights Act secured the franchise for African-Americans in the South, and would rely on black votes throughout his career in a state that would eventually become a Republican bulwark.
A World War II veteran with a sharp mind and sharper tongue, Mr. Hollings quickly made his mark in the Senate, taking over the chamber’s campaign committee in 1972.
That is when he agreed to support a 29-year-old local Delaware official to challenge a long-serving Republican senator in that state. “He ended up taking a chance on me,” Mr. Biden recalled, revealing that he still keeps a picture on the wall of his parents with Mr. Hollings that year.
A decade after he retired, a federal courthouse in Charleston was named for Mr. Hollings. But, as Mr. Biden noted, he rejected the honor and asked that it be named instead for J. Waties Waring, a local federal judge and lonely voice for integration in the civil rights era.
Mr. Biden, who according to advisers did not schedule any other events while he was here, was not the only former senator in attendance: former Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former Senator Christopher J. Dodd both came to pay their respects.
Mr. Kerry acknowledged that he had given some consideration to making a 2020 presidential bid of his own, but he said, “I want to see what Joe is going to do.”