State Politics

Emily Clyburn — librarian, activist, wife of SC congressman Jim Clyburn — dies at 80

To those unversed in South Carolina politics and civic life, she was the wife of 58 years to Democrat Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress.

To everyone else, she was known, with great reverence, as Ms. Emily — a driving force behind her husband’s political rise, a civil rights demonstrator who went to jail for her activism and a fixture in the community in her own right.

Emily England Clyburn — who died Thursday morning, at the age of 80 — was a longtime librarian who helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to help students afford college.

“When she started the scholarship program, she said, ‘There are people out there who may not have, and these kids may not have,’” recalled Edith Canzater, Emily Clyburn’s close friend of 40 years.

Emily Clyburn hosted her own luncheon each year in Santee in conjunction with Jim Clyburn’s annual charity golf weekend — named for Rudolph Canzater, Edith Canzater’s late husband — and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from South Carolina State University, her alma mater, in 2010.

At S.C. State, she will be remembered through the Emily England Clyburn Honors Scholarship Fund and the Dr. Emily England Clyburn Pedestrian Bridge.

She helped raise three daughters who are now also fixtures of their community — a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, a career educator currently at the University of South Carolina and the political director of the state Democratic Party.

“What she did with her own children to show what firm resolve and a strong education could do for them — she has created another generation of Clyburn leaders,” said Jean Toal, the former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court who first got to know the Clyburns through civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s.

And the history of “Jim Clyburn’s World-Famous Fish Fry” fundraiser will recount how she always harangued her husband onto the dance floor.

“When my wife was physically able, she would not allow me to stay in my seat if the Electric Slide was on,” Jim Clyburn, now the U.S. House Majority Whip, recalled earlier this year.

Elsewhere, Emily Clyburn’s legacy has been cemented in the influential role she played shepherding her husband through some of the biggest moments of his career and serving as a voice of conscience as he navigated personal obstacles.

In 1971, it was Emily Clyburn who gave Jim Clyburn the “jolt” to consider how to build a career in public service, the congressman recalled in his 2014 memoir, “Blessed Experiences.”

He had just delivered a rousing speech at a housing and community development conference in Charleston. Her reply, in almost a whisper: “I just wonder when you are going to stop talking about South Carolina’s problems and start doing something about them.”

A year earlier, after Jim Clyburn had spent the night celebrating his clinching the Democratic nomination for a seat in the S.C. Legislature, she’d taped a note to his bathroom mirror: “When you win brag gently. When you lose weep softly.”

The note was still there when he woke up the morning after losing the general election under circumstances almost certainly due to race.

“I felt anger and bitterness … (but) I remembered that note Emily had left on my mirror,” he wrote in his memoir. “I walked into that same bathroom; looked up at the mirror where that note was still stuck, and I wept softly.”

When he was preparing to run for Congress in 1992, she held the “veto power” to stop him. He was nervous about telling her about his plans. As it turned out, he recalled, Emily Clyburn had “known all along what I was thinking and doing and had just decided that she was going to make it tough for me.”

In 2016, when Jim Clyburn decided to break his pledge to stay neutral in the South Carolina Democratic primary and endorse Hillary Clinton for president, he cited as among the motivating factors “intensive discussions with my wife.”

‘All out of love’

In public appearances, Emily Clyburn could appear stoic and reserved. People who knew her described her as a private person.

In 2007, she was chosen for inclusion in a documentary — produced through the I. DeQuincey Newman Institute for Peace and Social Justice within the University of South Carolina College of Social Work — about 10 “notable” black women from across the state.

According to an (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat report at the time, she said she was “a little bit surprised” to have been selected.

“We do things, work with our husbands and work with family. It’s just something that you do,” she added.

But behind the scenes, and when asked directly for her thoughts, Emily Clyburn would say exactly what was on her mind.

Jim Clyburn has always used billboards during his congressional campaigns at her insistence. She was the one who often had to warn him not to be naive about trusting political adversaries.

In his book, he referred to her as “my most severe outside-the-Beltway critic.” According to friends of the couple, she referred to him as “Clyburn.”

Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman and longtime senior aide to Jim Clyburn who grew close with the rest of the family, said Emily Clyburn was always paying close attention to her husband’s political career from back home in South Carolina — and always letting him know what she thought.

“He’s this powerful figure in politics, not just in South Carolina but in the nation, but Emily Clyburn didn’t care,” said Harrison on Thursday. “He was still Clyburn, and she was going to tell Clyburn exactly what she thought and how he messed up this time and what he needed to do next time to make it better.”

She would read the newspapers and hold onto clippings to discuss them with him. She would email links to stories she thought he ought to see. Harrison said she was an astute political observer who would have done well on Sunday news talk show panels.

But even when she was tough, Harrison said, “that was just part of the love. It was all out of love.”

“She was not a pushover,” Edith Canzater agreed. “She had something to tell you, she would tell you. She did not search for words to tell you what she had to tell you ... But she was a people person. What people need to know about Emily is that she’d meet you and greet you in love.”

‘Emily proved to be right’

In defiance of the “woman behind the man” archetype where a wife only gets her due after her husband’s demise, Emily Clyburn was in real-time receiving credit, from her husband, as his closest confidant and sounding board.

And, a librarian until her retirement in 1994, Emily Clyburn was not only valued for her opinions in her marriage but also regarded as a professional equal.

As Jim Clyburn was working to fulfill his own political ambitions that culminated in his election to Congress in 1992, the coupled moved between Columbia and Charleston several times over the course of a few decades. It was, in large part, to accommodate Emily Clyburn’s job opportunities.

“She was a librarian by profession and she loved books,” said Bunny Jones, another longtime friend of Emily Clyburn’s from Columbia. “She was a brilliant woman. She was amazingly well read. It was always so interesting to talk to her because the depth of her knowledge about so many things was just incredible.”

Jim Clyburn met Emily England in jail in March of 1960. Both students of S.C. State, they were part of a group that had been arrested for a civil rights demonstration. He was complaining that he was hungry — she offered him a hamburger, but only on the condition they got to share it.

He later found out she had been observing him around campus walking with another woman and noted at the time “that the two of us would make a much better couple, and intended to do something about it.

“For the first of countless times over the years to come,” Jim Clyburn wrote in his book, “Emily proved to be right.”

They got married 15 months later.

“In the Congress, we all were blessed to see the great love that Jim and Emily shared over nearly six decades of marriage,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has served in leadership with Jim Clyburn for more 16 years, said in a statement Thursday. “Their love, forged during the fight for civil rights, brought joy to all who were fortunate enough to know them.”

‘Husband to Ms. Emily’

Emily England Clyburn was born in Moncks Corner to the late Peter “PJ” England and Mattie McCants England.

“We had to walk to school while other kids rode the buses, which we paid for with our tax dollars, and threw stuff at us,” she recalled in a short firm from 2017, recorded on the occasion of her designation as a “Woman of Distinction” by the Girl Scouts of South Carolina — Mountains to Midlands.

She graduated from Berkeley Training High School and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from S.C. State, followed by a master’s degree in librarianship at the University of South Carolina.

Throughout her career, she established the library program at W.G. Sanders Middle School, then Fairwold Middle School, in Columbia. She was the head librarian at the Charleston Naval Academy and a librarian at Simonton Elementary School and Burke High School, both also in Charleston.

Emily Clyburn also served two separate stints as a librarian at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia, from which she retired in 1994. In his memoir, Jim Clyburn recalled the reverence she had for the veterans community, which included her push for him to join the Veterans Affairs Committee when he won his first election to Congress.

“Her affinity for this committee was deep and personal,” he wrote. “Her only brother, Arthur England, had died while on active duty in the army, and her uncle, her mother’s brother … was serving on the USS Arizona on that fateful day, December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked.”

As a longtime member of the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, Emily Clyburn’s Homegoing Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 23, following a “celebration of her life and legacy” at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia at 5 pm. on Sunday, Sept. 22.

Following her interment at Crescent Hill Memorial Monday, there will be a repast at Trinity Baptist Church in Columbia.

Emily Clyburn is survived by her daughters Mignon Clyburn, Jennifer Reed and Angela Hannibal; and her grandchildren Walter A. Clyburn Reed, Sydney Alexis Reed, Layla Hannibal and Carter James Clyburn Hannibal.

She is also, of course, survived by Jim Clyburn — “better known,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, at this year’s Fish Fry, “as the husband to Ms. Emily.”

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
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