There is victory in perseverance. It is the fable about the tortoise’s slow pace being just the pace he needs. It is the religious doctrine that heralds, what comes doesn’t always come when you want it but when you need it. James Clyburn knows this well, having been a child in school during the slow churn of the segregated South, during Brown v. Board of Education, right up to the four attempts it took him, at age 52, to land in Congress.
With an extraordinary capacity for vivid recall, this son of South Carolina lays out his path to political leadership in his memoir, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, taking readers behind the scenes of some memorable events.
He recalls an angry, middle-of-the-night phone call from Bill Clinton in 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost the South Carolina primary to Barack Obama; his tug-of-war with the late Strom Thurmond over whose name would be engraved on a Columbia, S.C., courthouse; and a summoning to the Oval Office after criticizing the president over the Shirley Sherrod firing.
There is also Rep. Clyburn’s walk through civil rights history and the racial struggles that he endured and which he discusses in a Q&A with The Root, as well as his dire warnings about the dangerous times we are facing, with attempts by “the majority” to turn back the clock on racial progress.
The Root: One of the most powerful images in the book was from 1955. Brown v. Board [of Education] was law. You were a proud young clarinet player in your high school band, and you thought change had finally come to Sumter, S.C. Your band was invited to perform in the Christmas parade. And what happened?
James Clyburn: Christmas 1955, after having a whites-only Christmas parade for all these years, South Carolina was responding to that decision in many ways. They started at looking at ways to show that there was desegregation. We were invited to march in the Christmas parade. We were ecstatic. I was one of two clarinet players.
And we get down to the foot of the bridge, which is what we called it, where the parade always started. Nobody bothered to tell us where we were going or what unit we would be. And they started lining up the units. Santa Claus would be riding on a fire truck and would be the last unit in the parade, with the exception of the local horse stable, who would have all of their horseback riders coming along behind the fire truck. There’s a reason the horses come behind the fire truck—because they leave deposits along the way that would not be conducive for Santa Claus to be inhaling.
Sure enough, everybody lined up—Santa Claus lined up—the horses got behind Santa Claus. And there we were. They put us behind the horses. I’ll never get over that. I still remember marching through those horse deposits along the way.
Should we have turned around and marched back to the campus? We didn’t. We marched in that parade. I still debate whether or not that was the proper thing to do.
TR: There have been some tough racial battles in South Carolina, the Confederate flag for one. Strom Thurmond, a pro-segregationist, is one of the state’s most revered politicians. What kind of progress have you seen in your state?