Politics & Government

Uncommon roots but common goals

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks to about 400 people gathered for a town meeting on health care reform at the Carolina Coliseum.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks to about 400 people gathered for a town meeting on health care reform at the Carolina Coliseum. The State

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, both sons of the segregated South, grew up in parts of South Carolina that were much further apart than the mere 175 miles between them.

Tonight, the two men - a black Democrat from Sumter and a white Republican from the small Upstate town of Central - will share an honor that the Jim Crow laws of their youth might have prohibited.

The Columbia Urban League will present to Clyburn and Graham its annual Whitney M. Young Award in recognition of their efforts to advance race relations in South Carolina.

"Both Congressman Clyburn and Senator Graham have demonstrated in their own distinct ways a commitment to social justice and equal opportunity for all Americans," said James T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League.

"People don't necessarily articulate issues the same way, but when the dust settles, they're both of one accord when it comes to promoting basic rules of fairness," McLawhorn said.

The award will be presented at a sold-out dinner attended by more than 900 people at Seawell's in Columbia.

Clyburn, 69, and Graham, 54, expressed deep respect for each other despite their pronounced political differences.

"Receiving this award is a great honor, and being so honored alongside Senator Lindsey Graham makes it doubly so," said Clyburn. "Lindsey and I share the philosophy that we must be able to talk to, and work with, those whose backgrounds and opinions may differ from our own. Common ground cannot be reached if we don't."

Graham said Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, has already established himself as a towering figure in South Carolina political annals.

"When they write the history of this state, Jim is going to be at the very top in terms of congressional influence," Graham said.

McLawhorn said Clyburn and Graham are the first elected politicians to receive the award, which is named after the man who was head of the national Urban League in 1964, when the landmark Civil Rights Act became law.


Leaders of the Columbia Urban League, McLawhorn said, made a point of honoring two prominent South Carolinians of different races in order to counter recent negative perceptions of the state over racial matters.

McLawhorn cited U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" yell as President Barack Obama addressed Congress in September, an insult from the Lexington Republican that many African-Americans - Clyburn among them - viewed as racially motivated.

McLawhorn also recalled Republican operative Rusty DePass' widely publicized Facebook insult in June that a gorilla that escaped at Columbia's Riverbanks Zoo was "just one of Michelle's ancestors."

DePass, a Republican activist and former head of the State Election Commission, apologized for the slur against first lady Michelle Obama, whose great-great-grandfather was a slave at Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown County.

Just two weeks ago, Edwin Merwin, chairman of the Bamberg County Republican Party, and Jim Ulmer, county head of the Orangeburg GOP, wrote in a newspaper column: "There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

McLawhorn said such incidents have made South Carolina seem like a freak show to many other Americans.

"We have allowed a few South Carolinians to hijack race relations and cast a negative cloud over all South Carolina," McLawhorn said.

Clyburn and Graham, though, marveled at how far the state has come since their childhoods a half-generation apart.

Graham, who now lives in Seneca, recalled attending all-white classes until the first black schoolchildren joined him and his classmates in the sixth grade.

"I look back and see how far we've come," Graham said. "There are so many African-American teachers now. But we've still got a long way to go. South Carolina has too many disparities in health and income based on race, and there's the I-95 'Corridor of Shame.'"

Clyburn, a descendant of slaves who wept at the Nov. 4 election of Obama as the first black president, said that historic event marked the nation's progress since African-Americans' right to cast ballots was cemented in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"This country is much better than it was 44 years ago," Clyburn, a Columbia resident, said. "My lord, we're light-years ahead of where we were then. (But) we take two steps forward and one step back."


Despite his close relationship with Obama, Clyburn disagrees with his reluctance to discuss race.

"I think the president is advised almost daily to stay out of racial discussions, which I think is a mistake," Clyburn said. "That might be the right approach. I just don't think it's the right approach."

Clyburn believes that much of the Republican outcry against the expansion of the federal government is merely a cover for disapproval of where a black man is leading the country.

"This idea that it's all about big government - that's poppycock," Clyburn said, asking rhetorically where were those fiscal conservatives when Republican President George W. Bush vastly expanded government with his prescription drug program and his march to war.

While they carve out distinguished roles in Congress and get frequent face time on national TV, Clyburn and Graham cross party lines to cooperate on less-heralded ventures back home.

Although he voted against the $787 billion economic-stimulus bill in February, Graham has worked quietly with Clyburn to help steer federal funds to South Carolina.

In an initiative that got almost no publicity, Clyburn and Graham helped secure bridge loans under a federal program called New Market Tax Credits that promotes investment in low-income communities.

The two lawmakers spoke a year ago at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Celia Saxon Center, a 30,200-square-foot retail oasis at Harden and Calhoun streets in Columbia.

The center boasts a huge Columbia Food Fresh Market, the neighborhood's first grocery store in two decades, and a new branch of AllSouth Federal Credit Union.

Clyburn and Graham also meet jointly with leaders of businesses they're trying to woo to South Carolina.

Graham said Clyburn has been a key supporter of the Savannah River Site nuclear complex in Aiken County and is one of the strongest proponents of nuclear power among Democrats.

"This is a state where we have influence on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers of Congress," Graham said. "I would hope that Jim and I are two people of different political parties and ideologies who can set aside our differences to try to build our state as a whole."