U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) talks about his life, career and his autobiography new memoir Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, which shares lessons learned on his journey from the Jim Crow South to a top spot on Capitol Hill

by Kam Williams

University of South Carolina Press James ClyburnJames Enos Clyburn made history in 1993 when he became the first African-American to represent South Carolina in the House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Over the course of his tenure, he has served as Majority Whip and as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and is currently the third-ranking Democrat in the House as the Assistant Minority Leader. 

Representative Clyburn graduated from South Carolina State College, where he majored in history and was active in the civil rights movement. During his junior year, he was arrested and convicted as a member of the Orangeburg Seven, a group of student leaders who had organized a non-violent demonstration against segregated lunch counters.

Congressman Clyburn has been married to his wife, Emily, since 1961, and they have three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren. 

Kam Williams: Congressman Clyburn, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.

James Clyburn: Yes, sir. How are you, Kam?

KW: Great! I loved your autobiography. It really gave me a chance to get to know you in so much more depth than your appearances on C-Span and other cable news networks. I really knew next to nothing about your rich civil rights background and lifelong commitment to the underprivileged. What is the main message you want people to take away from the book?

JC: The memoir’s main lesson is grounded in that old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I lost three times before I got elected. There’s no limit. Stay in pursuit of your dreams. That’s what this book is about. I hope young people get a lesson out of every chapter and are motivated by the notion that the next time might be “the” time that they succeed.

KW: What does it take for a visible minority to shatter the glass ceiling and enjoy longevity in a career in politics?

JC: First, get yourself prepared, not just in terms of education, but mentally. A question I often get is, “How do you maintain your sanity with so much happening all around you?” I think I developed a certain mental toughness that is required in this business. You have to have a thick skin and a brass bottom, because you’re going to kicked a lot.

KW: It also seems that the higher you go, the more they come after you.

JC: You’re exactly right. All you have to do is achieve a modicum of success.

 KW: Older females are among the most vulnerable individuals in the economic crisis. They are twice as likely as elderly males to be living near or below the federal poverty threshold. What needs to be done to secure a reasonable retirement for this segment of the population?

JC: (Older women are) a very vulnerable population. But I don’t know that anything additional needs to be done outside of sensitivity to the fact that these issues are unique for this demographic, and that we ought to be aware of that uniqueness. We need to make sure that they are aware of and are able to gain access to what’s available for them. That’s why I was so concerned about the Affordable Care Act. A big part of it is the expansion of Medicaid, which includes not only low-income people, but senior citizens in nursing homes, the disabled and children who are vulnerable.

KW: As a Democratic leader in the U.S House of Representatives, you must often feel frustrated by the destructive resistance of the House Republican majority to move forward on any of President Obama’s programs such as job creation, much-needed infrastructure improvements, including unsafe roads and bridges, and the impingement of voting rights in many states. How do you deal that, since the opposition has made this their prime strategy in terms of the President’s programs? An appeal to reason does not seem to work, because this is a blanket strategy.

JC: Sure, it’s frustrating at times, but you keep going at it. It took me seven years to create the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which failed to pass for a long time. All of a sudden the break came, and I was ready to pounce, as soon as I saw that opening. It’s now law. And it turned out to be one of the most popular things I’ve ever done. Often it depends on your not being hung up on getting the credit, since the best way to get legislation that you’ve proposed passed sometimes is to let another Congressman put his or her name on the bill. So, I think stick-to-itiveness and a little humility can go a long way.

KW: What do you think about Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent statement that he believes there is a racial animus behind much of the criticism of him and President Obama?

JC: I was glad to see him finally getting there. I’ve felt that way a long time. I’ve even said it publicly and been chastised for it, but I’ll say it again, a lot of it is racial animus. I ask anyone who disagrees with me to just read some of the hate mail that comes into my office. Or listen to some of the phone calls. I’ve had college student interns working for me who arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hang up the phone crying after taking calls because people are so racist and cruel. So, don’t tell me that it’s got nothing to do with race. With some people, it’s got everything to do with race.

KW: What do you think of the Republicans suing President Obama?

JC: I think they’re playing to their base. These guys know full well that even if the lawsuit had any merit, which I don’t think it does, he’d be out of office before it worked its way through the courts. But this is their way of sending a signal to their base. There are a lot of people who have endorsed the narrative that there are certain things people of color aren’t supposed to be doing, and one of those things is running the United States of America as President. These are people who are going to work hard all day, every day, trying to make factual this narrative that there are certain areas of our society and of our economy that ought to be shut off from people of color.

KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

JC: [Laughs] I can’t think of one, but that’s a good question.

KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

JC: A 74 year-old who is not disappointed with his life.

KW: How frightening was it for you to be arrested and even convicted, when you were a college student activist, just for trying to integrate a lunch counter?

JC: Those were very trying times with a great deal of apprehension, although I don’t think we ever operated out of fear. We knew that segregation was unfair, and that we were going to challenge it, and that’s just what we did.

KW: Well, I salute you for service in the Civil Rights Movement, because you could’ve very easily been beaten, blacklisted, imprisoned or even slain.

JC: Thank you. And some people were martyred, and some, like Congressman John Lewis, did get hurt. But we never thought about those things.

KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

JC: Like I said before, get yourself prepared, educationally and emotionally, and develop mental toughness. Don’t ever give up. 

KW: Lastly, what does family mean to you?

JC: Oh, it means a whole lot. Not a day goes by when I don’t communicate with one or all of my daughters. My wife and I already exchanged several emails today. And I spoke to my brother John on the phone this morning and to my brother Charles last night. We are a pretty close-knit family.

KW: Thanks again for this opportunity, Congressman Clyburn, I really appreciate your taking time from your extremely busy schedule to speak with me.

JC: Thank you, Kam.

We Are Proud to Have Served Our Community for 38 Years. Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Providing a Trusted Voice. We Look Forward to 38 More!