Opinion Extra

Clyburn: On race, 'never stop talking'

I am humbled to be a recent recipient of the Columbia Urban League's Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. This is a tremendous honor, and one that I hope to live long enough to prove myself deserving.

The theme of this year's annual banquet focused on race relations and their impact on community and economic development. While I prefer leaving it up to others to debate the substantive merits of this year's awardees, symbolically I think it very appropriate that the award is shared by two of the state's high-profile political office holders, one black and one white. Lindsey Graham and I have made it a significant part of our agenda to work together to demonstrate that common ground can be found across party lines and over the racial divide that exists in our state and nation.

Sen. Graham and I discovered very early, in our shared reverence for the motto of our beloved state, "while I breathe I hope," that in spite of our political and ethnic differences, the needs of our state and the dreams and aspirations of our constituents require that we sometimes put those differences aside. We decided that talking to - rather than around or through - each other is always important. I don't know what brought the senator to such a place, but I often think about an episode that helped to get me there.

A few days after I was named director of Charleston's Neighborhood Youth Corps at the ripe old age of 25, I received a phone call from Mrs. Rowena Tobias, whom I knew only by reputation as one of Charleston's bluebloods. She invited me to her home down on South Battery to discuss an issue she said was very important to the future of Charleston and South Carolina.

Mrs. Tobias told me that she had been observing my actions for some time and felt that I was destined for a future in public service. And she shared with me a bit of Charleston's history. She talked about how Charleston once was the leading economy on the east coast. During that era, she explained that whenever Charlestonians were faced with challenges, they sat down and talked their way through them - with one exception.

On that memorable day, Mrs. Tobias told me that whenever the issue of race came up, the Charlestonians would stop talking. Then she made the point she had called me there to hear: Charleston and South Carolina, she said, would never be all that they can be until we develop the intestinal fortitude to confront the issues of race and the maturity to talk our way through them.

At the end of our conversation she asked me to make her a promise: that in whatever capacity I might find myself serving in the future, I would work to keep the lines of communication open and never stop talking about issues of race. I promised her that I would.

Keeping that promise is a significant part of my job at home and in Washington. To be a respected representative of South Carolina and an effective representative of the 6th Congressional District, I work to understand and respect the backgrounds and experiences of those whom I represent as well as those with whom I serve. Members of Congress represent different aspects of the American experience. All of us are very serious about doing what's right for our constituents. We love our children and want a good future for them. All of us are patriots, and love our country. But none of us can be any more or any less than what our experiences allow us to be.

Whitney Young was a contemporary of James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King Jr. While Young was much more comfortable working in the corporate community, Wilkins found his comfort level working through the legal system. Farmer and King were more prone to direct action. Although their goals were the same - equality and justice under the law for all Americans - they led different organizations that employed different approaches: the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I am proud to have known and worked alongside all four of them.

It is an honor to receive an award that bears the name of Whitney M. Young Jr. from an organization he headed with tenacity and dignity. I hope to continue working hard to prove myself worthy of the honor while keeping the promise I made to Rowena Tobias 44 years ago.