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?
JC: If you’d have asked me that question four or five years ago, I would answer it differently than I’m going to answer it today. I think that one of the unfortunate things about our society is the fact that we tend to make progress, we sputter along, but we never get on an even course.
[In the Supreme Court,] if you look at Citizens United, that overturned almost 100 years of law relating to the financing of campaigns. We took very significant steps to keep big corporations from controlling the country. But these decisions that we see now, the Shelby case on voting and the Citizens United on funding and the other decisions to come. And I think we are going to stay on this trend. So I believe that the whole country is retreating when it comes to those fundamentals of our Constitution that talk about everybody being on equal footing.
TR: What do you attribute the retrenchment to? Do you think it’s fear?
JC: Absolutely, and I think all of this is a way to make sure that the next thing will not be a Hispanic president. I think this whole notion of that group, that’s been a majority for so long, seeing that within the next decade or so they will not be a majority. And I think there’s an attempt now to put in place laws and court decisions that will stymie that.
[Former Gov. Charlie] Crist, down in Florida, said the reason he left the Republican Party is because he didn’t like the way they were treating black people. I don’t know why we keep wanting to deny that. That’s one of my bones of contention with the White House. I don’t expect them to say it the way I say it, but you can’t just pretend it doesn’t have anything to do with skin color.
TR: Perhaps we actually started to believe that we were post-racial. And we didn’t see the undercurrent that was growing and building and it’s taken a lot of folks by surprise?
JC: Well, it never took me by surprise. I never bought into that. I said to people, be careful here. And I’ll tell you why. When you see a narrative that has developed for 300 years that black folks are inferior, and because they are inferior their accomplishments, they are limited in what they can do, their capacity is so limited. You remember [Budget] Chairman [Paul] Ryan, in explaining himself a few months ago, even quoted one of the purveyors of this limited capacity of black people.
Now, when that kind of narrative has been developed so long, no one is going to give that up with one election. And that’s why they worked so hard to make him [Obama] a one-term president, because they had to make that an anomaly.
TR: You had a couple of questions [to ask yourself] in the book, and one was about serving both races fairly. You didn’t want to just be a black congressman. Why does that matter so much to you?
JC: Because I think my children and grandchildren are going to grow up in an environment where they will have to compete a little differently than I’ve had to compete. I grew up at a time, a very fortunate time, when affirmative action was on the upswing and there were people who were doing things because they knew they had been unfair, and I benefited from that. And I don’t understand why Clarence Thomas won’t accept the fact that he benefited from it, too. And then all of a sudden there is this retrenchment taking place. You know, these Supreme Court decisions that we’ve had dealing with affirmative action and set-aside programs.
My children and my grandchildren are going to be challenged differently. They are going to have a different yardstick applied to them, and so my performance in this job has to be such that the person [who] comes after me [if the district is redrawn so it’s no longer drawn as a minority district], he’s got to be fair to everybody. Irrespective of whether it’s a majority-black district, he can be trusted to treat everybody fairly.