Politics & Government

April 28, 2014

Thanks to determined mother, Clyburn, brothers got a jump on education

I was born on July 21, 1940; John was next, born on Oct. 22, 1942, and Charles arrived on Dec. 19, 1944. ...

How important was education in the Clyburn household? U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn says he and his brothers grew up “PKs,” or “preacher’s kids.” Clyburn’s father, E. L. Clyburn, was no ordinary minister or father. He was a no-nonsense man who was highly regarded by young and old, and religious and secular alike. And Clyburn’s mother was determined that her sons would be educated. An excerpt from Clyburn’s upcoming memoir:

I was born on July 21, 1940; John was next, born on Oct. 22, 1942, and Charles arrived on Dec. 19, 1944. ...

At a time when educational opportunity for black children in South Carolina was very much a hot political topic, each of us was enrolled in school at age 5, at least a year ahead of most of the state’s children, black or white. How it was done remains to this day an absolute tribute to Mom’s ingenuity and determination, and in some cases, just plain stubbornness.

As the oldest, I was the first to arrive at the first-grade door.

Mom had enrolled me in the small kindergarten she had established at our church a year earlier, and she was able to convince the public-school authorities that my experience in the Church of God kindergarten qualified me as being academically and socially ready for first grade. It may have been a great leap of faith on the part of the school folks, but there I was in September 1945, a little more than 5 years and a month old, setting forth on my formal education career at Lincoln School in Sumter. ...

John was next to step forward for early enrollment, in the fall of 1947, and he was even younger than I had been when I entered first grade.

John was actually only 4, and the school rule was that a child had to be 6 no later than Oct. 1 of the upcoming school year. Even Mom knew she couldn’t bend the rule that far, but she was not to be deterred.

Lee County was not as strict as Sumter about the minimum age rule, so she sent John to Bishopville to live with her parents for a year. He enrolled at Browntown School at age 4 and was so advanced that they moved him to the second grade partway through the year. He came back to Sumter a year later and was put back in the second grade. Still, 5 years old in the second grade — not bad.

Charles, the youngest, also did not adhere to the Oct. 1 rule. He didn’t turn 6 until December 1950, so Mom had to find a creative solution to get him started at age 5.

St. Jude Catholic School was across the street from our house; and, because St. Jude was not a public school, they could take certain liberties with their enrollment criteria. The minimum enrollment age was one such liberty. So, Mom enrolled Charles in St. Jude Catholic School at age 5 for the first grade, and a year later she enrolled him as a 6 year old in the second grade at Liberty Street Elementary, a public school that had been recently built in our neighborhood.

A new urgency

It’s a story that still amazes me.

Here were two people — E. L. and Almeta Clyburn — who spent their entire lives overcoming the hardships and impediments that lay in the way of the educational attainment they desired. Their zeal in giving my brothers and me a head start to achieve educational success at a level they themselves had never known is still astonishing to me. ...

But it was a story being played out elsewhere in South Carolina and throughout the South.

Black parents were assigning a new urgency to achieving educational equality for their children.

One such place where this urgency was felt was Clarendon County, just 22 miles from Sumter. In 1947, the same year Mom enrolled my brother John in the first grade in Lee County, 12 courageous parents in Clarendon County signed their names to a lawsuit known as Levi Pearson v. Elliott, challenging the racial inequality of public-education offerings in School District 22 of that county. As was the norm during that period in our history, when a black man filed suit against the system of “Jim Crowism,” that lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality.

Not to be deterred, another parent, Harry Briggs, a service station attendant in the Clarendon County town of Silver — the birthplace of tennis trailblazer Althea Gibson — stepped forward as plaintiff and filed another suit. This challenge became known as Briggs v. Elliott, the first of the five combined cases that made up the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a lawsuit attacking public-school segregation by race in all the Southern states.

Mom’s restlessness and impatience with the lack of educational opportunities available to her children was not an isolated instance of resistance to the status quo. It was part of a widespread rebellion designed to overturn Jim Crow laws throughout the southern United States. ...

Of course my brothers and I didn’t know all that at the time.

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