Christmas 1955. A teenage Jim Clyburn, eldest son of a Church of God pastor and a beautician mother, was preparing to march in Sumter’s annual Christmas parade.
With clarinet in hand, the 15-year-old, who would grow up to be a congressman, assembled with his fellow Lincoln High School band members at the parade’s launch point.
Then, the young musicians realized they were victims of a snub. Instead of being mingled into the parade with the other marching bands, the African-American high school was placed “dead last” in the parade – behind Santa Claus and a cadre of white riders on horseback.
“The horses were last in the parade for obvious reasons: They left deposits along the street that made walking behind them hazardous and sickeningly unpleasant,” Clyburn writes in his new memoir set to be released Thursday. . “It was a two-and-a-half-mile march through the muck and the stuff left behind by the horses. Jim Crow had not died in Sumter; he was standing off to the side, chuckling and still finding creative ways to insult black people.”
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That indignity has lingered in Clyburn’s mind for more than a half-century. The memory remained as he rose through the ranks of state government, presided over the State Human Affairs Commission and won a coveted seat in Congress, the 6th District seat that has been his for 20 years.
It leavened his deeply religious view that “the least of these” should have a place at the table of South Carolina, and his belief that government is a legitimate vehicle to better people’s lives.
Clyburn’s memoir, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black” ($34.95, USC Press), is a paean to memory, to hard-won life experience and to the virtue of sticking it out in the face of opposition.
It begins with former President Bill Clinton’s much-publicized early morning tirade against Clyburn for failing to deliver South Carolina for his wife, Hillary, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, a loss that set the stage for President Barack Obama’s historic victory. Clyburn had pledged neutrality, and he writes that he refused to be cowed, even by a former president’s harsh words.
The volume rolls back in time to Clyburn’s small-town beginnings and his coming of age in the civil rights movement. It also chronicles the crises Clyburn presided over in government as he broke barriers as the first black gubernatorial aide and state agency head.
The book is a reminder of just how long Clyburn has been a political fixture in South Carolina, where he remains the lone Democrat in a staunchly conservative congressional delegation. And it reveals that old truism that if you stick around long enough, political realities often are turned upside down.
In a odd way, the 73-year-old Clyburn has inherited the mantle of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond as the politician most likely to bring home the bacon to South Carolina. Like Thurmond, the veteran Democrat is unashamed – though more often vilified – for funneling federal largesse to South Carolina. Like Thurmond, Clyburn’s name is etched on highway markers and buildings paid for with federal dollars, a testament to his power on Capitol Hill.
In June, Clyburn faces opposition from a Democratic Primary challenger, and he will face a Republican opponent in the fall. But political experts suggest the district that cuts across the state’s black belt is his to keep.
“He is recognized now as the only person who can get things done” in Washington, said Don Fowler, a Columbia communications executive and former chairman of the National Democratic Party. Except for Lindsey Graham, “every one of them, including Tim Scott, think that somehow it’s is bad for the federal government to do things for South Carolina.”
“There’s no question that he’s a statesman, whether you agree with his policies or not,” said state Sen. John Courson, a Republican and the president tempore of the Senate. While the two sometimes disagree on issues, Courson said, “We are lucky to have him.”
‘The least of these’
The voices of his parents, the Rev. Enos Lloyd Clyburn and Almeta Dizzley Clyburn, still echo in Clyburn’s head, and their presence permeates his memoir.
The elder Clyburns presided over an orderly and religious household, the three Clyburn boys expected to attend not only Sunday services at Sumter’s Walker Avenue Church of God but Wednesday and Friday night services too. He described his father as “evolutionary,” while his mother was “revolutionary,” quick to react to events.
“I think of my parents very, very often,” Clyburn said in a interview Tuesday. “I keep going back to those fundamentals.”
His minister father, who also worked as a carpenter, was “an advocate of change, but he wanted it to evolve,” Clyburn recalled. “My mom wanted it to happen tomorrow morning.”
Although South Carolina was strictly segregated in his youth, Clyburn said his parents were confident things would change. He recalls in his book that his mother, who was active in the NAACP, insisted he not be restricted by segregation.
“I talk about the experience I had in the beauty shop one day when this lady cautioned me about expressing my aspirations publicly because she thought it was dangerous for me to do so,” he said. “But my mom told me that night, ‘Pay no attention to that. Things are going to change. You keep on doing what you are doing,. You stay in school. You stay out of trouble. You be what you want to be.’”
Still, the indignities of segregation that Clyburn witnessed in his youth almost persuaded him that his future lay far beyond his native state. It was a teacher at the all-black Mather Academy in Camden, where Clyburn spent his senior year, who persuaded him otherwise. Edna Lukens told him he had an obligation to remain in South Carolina and help make the state a better place.
Now, he said, when he makes the case for Medicaid expansion or touts the benefits of the Affordable Care Act – arguments which are an anathema to the state’s majority Republican voters – he does so with the memory of his parents’ teachings just beneath the surface. He thinks expansion of Medicaid will happen in South Carolina despite the opposition of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
“If you look at Medicaid, who are the recipients of Medicaid? Forty-five percent of Medicaid recipients are children. You put on top of that the disabled, 10 or 15 percent, and then senior citizens in nursing homes. When you look at the children, disabled and seniors in nursing homes you have 65 to 75 percent,” he said. “I don’t understand why anybody cannot like a health care plan that says to a child: ‘Your unfortunate circumstance at birth is not going to be held against you when you need medical attention.’ I just don’t understand that.”
The biblical lessons he learned at his father’s knee still resonate.
“One of my problems in life often is the fact that I was born and raised in this parsonage that influences me so much,” Clyburn said. “Matthew 25:45 rings in my ears all the time: ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you have done it to me.’ And I sincerely believe that that is how we are judged in life, not how many talents we get or how much money we make, but how we treat the least of these.”
“That is a fundamental of Christianity, and I don’t know how anybody can tell me they are, in fact, a Christian and walk away from that which is fundamental,” he said. “You go through the Bible, it’s all there – how we treat the least of these among us. So that is who and what I am. That is my experience. I cannot get away from it.”
A little more fearful
Clyburn entered Congress in 1992 amid heady days for the Democratic Party and the newly minted administration of a young, energetic President Clinton.
Clyburn became the first black congressman from South Carolina in a century, joining a record 38 African-American members in the House. Since that election, he has continued to amass power, rising to House majority whip between 2007-2011 when the House was in Democratic hands. He is now the third ranking Democrat in the chamber and is close to President Barack Obama.
Years earlier, Clyburn was breaking new ground when he joined the administration of Gov. John West in 1970 as the first African-American aide to an S.C. governor. Soon, he was appointed to arbitrate some of the state’s most vexing racial problems as the head of the Human Affairs Commission.
“He has evolved on different platforms of public policy, “ said Columbia Urban League president J.T. McLawhorn. “One of the things that is very clear, is he has had a laser focus on providing access and opportunities to all people.”
At the Human Affairs Commission, Clyburn was dogged by what he calls the “Four C’s” – a 1979 Chester County hit-and-run accident that was thought to be motivated by race; a 1986 Ku Klux Klan incident at The Citadel that made national headlines; a 1989 controversy over the replacement of Conway High School’s black quarterback; and the fight over removing the Confederate battle flag from the State House dome.
“Conway and The Citadel – those two incidents were probably my most uncomfortable periods of time at that agency,” Clyburn recalled.
As Clyburn and his staff gathered facts in Conway, the majority of the high school’s black players went on strike, and the head of the Conway NAACP, the Rev. H.H. Singleton, who had coordinated the strike, was fired from his teaching job. Demonstrators marched in the streets.
Eventually, the commission determined that race was not a motivating factor in the coach’s decision to move the black player from quarterback to defensive back.
But Clyburn said he took heat from all sides.
“In fact, a very good friend of mine, a Masonic brother of mine, I’ll never forget him saying I was a disgrace to my race because of the way I ruled on that,” Clyburn said. “But I ruled based on the facts, not the emotions.”
The Citadel cadets who had donned sheets and entered the room of a black cadet were punished but not expelled, a decision that also rankled different constituencies.
“Conway was under a Republican governor (Carroll Campbell). The Citadel was under a Democratic governor (Dick Riley),” Clyburn said. “I had my tough times with both administrations.”
But Clyburn said he learned that real leaders – and he counts Campbell, West and Riley among them – set aside politics to find solutions.
“When he ran that, he dealt with a lot of tough stuff,” Democratic operative Fowler said, referring to the Human Affairs Commission. “He didn’t win them all, but he won a lot of them. He created enough credibility so that, when that congressional district was created as a black-majority district, he won. And that was a direct result of being faithful and true to the cause.”
Clyburn has lost none of the steel he acquired in his days fighting the old white power structure that dominated South Carolina. In his memoir, he takes on his critics, from those who lambasted his proposal to build a span over Lake Marion as “the bridge to nowhere” to the “small thinkers” who belittle public service and view Washington “as if it were the headquarters of some alien power.” He worries his view of the world is lost amid the polarization that dominates politics today.
“When I look at South Carolina today, I tend to feel that we are retrogressing in so many ways,” Clyburn said last week. “Of course, having studied history, having taught history, you tend to really understand that the pendulum goes back and forth.”
“So I am a little more fearful today than I was 20 years ago,” he said. “I was so sure about South Carolina and the country. Things I taught my children, I wouldn’t dare teach my grandchildren today.”
Clyburn counseled his now-grown daughters to stay in South Carolina for college. “I felt they had an obligation to help make the state better.
“And all of them graduated college here and started their professional lives here,” he said. “Now, I have a granddaughter who aspires to go to college outside of the state. I’m not discouraging that at all. It may mean that she will never come back, but I’ve reached a point where I understand that as well.”
Clyburn, 73, said he has no intention of retiring. He’s in good health and still plays 18 holes of golf as often as he can. However, a few months ago, Emily Clyburn, his wife of 53 years, thought he might be equivocating a bit about another term in Congress.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what’s on your mind, but you can’t quit.’ ”
Clyburn said he has always seen his role in Washington as someone who can speak for those South Carolinians – the poor, the infirm, the old – who he says too often get lumped into “takers” for their reliance upon programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“You go through the Bible, it’s all there how we treat the least of these among us,” Clyburn said. “So that is who and what I am. That is my experience; I cannot get away from it.”
If You Go
A new memoir by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” will be released Thursday by USC Press. The congressman will sign books at upcoming Midlands events:
May 5, 5:30 p.m.: Official book launch. Clyburn will speak followed by a reception and book signing, USC, Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, 1322 Greene St.. RSVP required: (803) 777-7005
May 17, 12:40 p.m.: S.C. Book Festival, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, 1101 Lincoln St.
Excerpts this week in The State
Monday: A mother’s admonition. “Mom told me firmly, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Things are going to change. If you stay in school and study hard, you will be able to realize your dreams.’ ”
Tuesday: How did the Clyburn brothers get a jump on school, starting before they were old enough, according to state law? Creative solutions
Wednesday: How replacing a high school quarterback led to a strike, marches and intervention by the Clyburn-led Human Affairs Commission.
Thursday: It’s 2:15 a.m. and a former president of the United State is on the phone – and very angry.