Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 12 | The parable of the talents

Five stories exlpain Rep. Jim Clyburn

May 17, 2007 

Ten years ago, when Rep. Jim Clyburn told David Summers he would "work on" a proposed bridge across Lake Marion, it was no idle comment.

A preacher's son doesn't just make promises; he makes vows. And a preacher's son doesn't depend on or talk about luck or fate. A preacher's son relies on and talks about a calling.

Clyburn explains, as a preacher's son would, through his father and the Bible, Matthew 25:16.

"My father used to preach a lot from the Parable of the Talents," he says, referring to a story in which a master gives his servants money before leaving on a trip. One servant is given five talents, another servant two, another servant a single talent. The master, upon his return, praises the two who traded and doubled their money; he rebukes the servant who buried his talent rather than use it.

"My dad always used that story to talk about the gifts people have," says Clyburn. "I think I can be akin to the one with five talents. I believe whatever I have must be put to use or that which I have will be taken away."

Clyburn believes he was called to remediate, to even the scales, to right the wrongs — and in whatever time he has in Congress he will do just that.

We all have stories we use to explain ourselves, but Clyburn wants to do so in the context of the times he grew up in, in the context of the South Carolina he wants to change.

So he speaks in parables. He explains his unmoveable stance on the bridge through stories with morals. His second story speaks to obligation:

In 1960, student sit-ins and protest marches swept the South. Clyburn, attending S.C. State in Orangeburg, was among nearly 400 students arrested during a civil-rights march. The students were jailed at what was called the Pink Palace.

Clyburn was chosen to testify at the trial by the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, then president of the state NAACP, and Matthew Perry, then chief counsel for the state NAACP.

In those days, white-owned newspapers printed the names of petitioners and protesters, who were then threatened, harassed and fired. When students protested, their parents suffered consequences.

Newman told him, "‘Clyburn, it will have to be you. Your daddy's a minister; he's not preaching to white folks. Your mother's a beautician; she's not fixing white folks' hair. You're the only one insulated.'

Clyburn adds, "Matthew Perry referred to me as a star witness. But my parents had insulated me. It wasn't about me. I didn't do a thing but breathe.

"I do things because I'm insulated. I say things because I'm insulated. I don't feel vulnerable."

Clyburn's third story unveils a family secret:

His father, Enos Lloyd Clyburn, grew up in Blaney (renamed Elgin in the 1960s). Enos Clyburn was a widower, a preacher and a carpenter when he met Almeta Dizzley, 18 years his junior. She was a student at Camden's Mather Academy, founded in 1887 by the New England Southern Conference of the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church.

The two married, and Enos Clyburn accepted a post in Sumter so the couple could attend Morris College. Clyburn remembers his mother's graduation in 1953; he was 13.

Many years later, in 1978, a minister asked Clyburn about his last name, saying he remembered a smart Morris classmate named Clyburn who dropped out.

"I drove straight to Sumter and told my daddy what I heard," says Clyburn.

Enos Clyburn revealed a family secret. Because Kershaw County didn't offer high school for black students, he attended the last grade available, seventh grade, three times to get the most he could.

Clyburn repeats that: Three times.

Enos Clyburn got into Morris by taking an entrance exam. In his third year, he was asked to produce proof of high-school graduation.

He couldn't. He left.

His father planned to take this to his grave. But where he felt shame, Clyburn found courage. "That's part of what drives me to this day."

His fourth story remarks on the echoes of white and black, still sounding.

In 1970, on the night John C. West was elected governor, Clyburn went to bed thinking he had won himself a seat in the S.C. House. He woke up the next morning to find he had lost.

Two days later, West invited Clyburn to join his staff; Clyburn would be the first minority adviser to an S.C. governor. "I said, ‘I don't think I'd like to do that. I'm a little outspoken. I'm not sure I'll be a good fit.'"

Clyburn remembers West replying, "If I were black with as much talent as you've got, I'd be much more militant than you are. I can take you if you can take me."

He feels a deep connection and a lasting gratitude to West, but there's a side trip to this story, all about the bridge. In 1971, Clyburn and wife, Emily England Clyburn, were invited to the governor's Christmas party, held at a Berkeley County conference center called Wampee; the original Wampee Plantation is under Lake Moultrie's waters.

What could have been thrilling was instead upsetting.

Mattie England, Clyburn's mother-in-law, burst into tears at the news.

"She had never set foot at Wampee, and the reason, she finally told me, with tears streaming down her face, was ‘My great-grandmama's grave is at the bottom of that lake. They flooded that lake and didn't give a damn about our graves.'"

Clyburn observes, "If you don't understand the history, you wouldn't know on plantations the slaves' grave sites were at the water's edge. Black people preferred to be at the water's edge so their souls could go back to Africa.

"So that land had slaves' graves, but then it became useful. People who prefer to ignore those things, that's their prerogative. I don't, and I factor it into what I do."

His fifth story makes you wonder about both fate and callings — and time.

In 1992, a tribute was held in the state Senate's chambers to honor Clyburn's election to Congress. In his remarks, Clyburn noted, "I'll have the opportunity to continue a legacy, the one my great-great-uncle George Washington Murray of Sumter began 100 years ago."

While this connection is a family tale, rather than a documented branch of the family tree, Clyburn could find a greater kinship than mere blood in Murray's quests.

A U.S. congressman from 1893-97, Murray was South Carolina's only black and only Republican congressman at a time when the Democratic Party ran the state and excluded blacks.

He also was the nation's only black congressman, and thus the highest-ranking black public official in the U.S., according to "A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina's George Washington Murray" by John F. Marszalek.

Born a slave on a Sumter plantation, Murray became a farmer in his teens. In 1874, he passed a competitive exam to enter USC, but Reconstruction's collapse ended access during his sophomore studies.

In 1880, he owned 49 acres of tilled land, 15 acres of woodlands, four pigs, one ox, one horse, one mule and eight chickens. He served as Sumter's delegate to the state Republican Party convention, and at a Sumter meeting of 2,000 blacks, his speech earned him a nickname: the "bold black eagle" of South Carolina.

Murray spoke often of "race pride," telling listeners they had to overcome not only physical but mental and spiritual slavery. However, he campaigned and served against a background of murders and mass lynchings.

He tried much, including petitions, lawsuits and a "protection society," to stop South Carolina's disfranchisement of blacks. When his faith in politics faded, he tried economics: He bought then sold land to blacks; in the process, his tenants became landowners — and legally qualified voters.

In 1904, Murray was charged with forging a duplicate lease. Marszalek's book calls it "an example of legal whitecapping, a way to rid the community of a troublesome black." Murray gained nothing by the document in question but was sentenced to three years hard labor.

As he appealed, he was charged with perjury. He turned his holdings over to his attorney and escaped to Chicago. Sumter whites opposed extradition because he would "be looked upon in the light of a martyr."

Murray continued to speak and write — visiting 30 states in 10 years — advocating education and "race models" to develop black spiritual freedom. He died in 1926, forgotten and poor.

Marszalek describes Murray as "clever, pragmatic, hard-working, untiring, dedicated, ambitious and demagogic." However, the Mississippi State University professor adds, "He had the wrong skin, and he belonged to the wrong political party to succeed in South Carolina."

Murray was the state's last black congressman — until Clyburn.

In March, Clyburn took the stage in Charleston with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a presidential aspirant; Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a longtime supporter; and retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings. These powerful people gathered to celebrate his ascension to House Whip.

Like Murray, Clyburn is a black man trying to effect change in opposition to his state's white majority party. He told the overflow crowd stories about past students; like Murray he was a teacher.

And maybe he was channeling Murray when he said, "We must regain our sense of commitment. We must regain our sense of worth æ.æ.æ. to make a better life for all of us."

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