Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 2 | The total of his experiences

Getting one bridge may become a lifelong mission for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn

May 17, 2007 

‘I predict at some point in the future, there’s going to be a bridge across Lake Marion. That’s going to happen,’ says U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. ‘It’s not that people resent the vision, they resent the fact I have a vision.’

PHOTO BY GERRY MELENDEZ

Young Jim Clyburn pedaled his bicycle past pine trees and cotton fields, past concrete-block stores and prim white churches, from Sumter to Pinewood and the shores of Lake Marion.

His minister father preached do-it-yourself messages. His beautician mother attended college while her children attended elementary school.

He played the clarinet and dreamed of a musician's life.

"We are but the sum total of our experiences," he says.

The Ku Klux Klan beat a white band director for teaching black students at his Camden school. A white man kicked his father for daring to ask directions.

He marched for civil rights and was arrested. He marched for civil rights and met his wife, Emily England. He taught history in Charleston; he directed youth and migrant-worker programs. He ran for public office and was defeated, three times. He is the sum total of such experiences.

And that is why, he explains, he walks government halls, stands in convention centers, sits in conference rooms with people who see the world one way, a way entirely different from his way — yet keeps on working: "They don't have my experiences," he says.

If you think the question of a bridge across Lake Marion will go away, you don't know James E. Clyburn. If you think a permit denial or a lawsuit, hostility or racist attacks will stop him, you don't know James E. Clyburn.

In the scope of things — which is the large and needy 6th Congressional District in the 21st century — one bridge doesn't seem much to get or to give up. But if you think that, you don't know the eight-term legislator, the majority whip for the 110th Congress, the third most powerful Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He's a man with a mission. Words like "vision," "mission" and "purpose" pepper his speech, but the preacher's son sometimes names it more dramatically: a divine calling.

So he persists. Ten years ago, he wanted a federal courthouse named after Matthew J. Perry Jr., a civil rights lawyer and the state's first black federal judge. Clyburn went up against U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who thought the Columbia courthouse should be an annex of the Strom Thurmond Federal Building, repeating his name. Clyburn won. U.S. District Judge Perry presides in an elegant columned courthouse downtown named the Matthew J. Perry Jr. U.S. Courthouse.

"I was told I couldn't do it," Clyburn said at the time. "Then I was told I would never get it through the Senate. Then I was told I would never get it built in my lifetime."

But that would be under-estimating Clyburn or the strength he finds in a calling. Retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings says Clyburn has long been the man to see when hunting votes. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail, mentions his leading the Faith Working Group for the House Democrats and suggests one day he will write "his own Book of James."

Judge Richard Fields, 75 and retired from state circuit court, remembers advising a young Clyburn: "You know the story of the house of straw. You huff and puff and huff and puff and blow it down.

"So they build a house of brick. You huff and puff and huff and puff and huff and puff, and you can't blow it down.

"You got to get inside. You can't change things from outside no matter how well-meaning you may be."

Fields loves this story, as he should, because Clyburn is indeed in the House, as in U.S. and a capital H.

There, Clyburn is known for his ability to negotiate, to count and collect votes, to sustain relationships, to suppress ego for goal.

He is known for power.

Here, among African-Americans, he is known for breaking through — first black man on a governor's staff, first black South Carolinian in Congress since Reconstruction.

Here, among many whites, he's known for a bridge. Not for his doggedness, his ambition, his power, but for a bridge and its price tag.

He's getting impatient with all that.

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