Into an American Uprising: James Clyburn on Lessons from History
Trymaine Lee: It was March of 1960 when more than a thousand students from Claflin and South Carolina State, two historically black colleges, marched to the town square in Orangeburg, South Carolina. They were protesting segregation. Fire hoses were turned on them, and hundreds of arrests were made.
One of those arrested was a young SC State student from Sumter. He'd been named the youth president of his local NAACP chapter at age 12. Now in college, he was one of the organizers of the sit-in. And his name was James Clyburn. Sitting in the Orangeburg County Jail that March day, Clyburn met the woman he would go on to marry, Miss Emily England.
They remained married for 58 years until her death last September. Next month, James Clyburn turns 80. He's never stopped fighting for civil rights. It's a nice story, a love story, but one that belies the dark, painful reality that change is slow in this country. As police hit protestors with rubber bullets and pepper spray this week and thousands of Americans are arrested on the streets of our cities, it starts to feel like we haven't come very far at all.
In times of great struggle and pain, we often look to history to guide us. Congressman James Clyburn has lived that history. He's serving his 14th term in the House of Representatives as a Democrat representing South Carolina's 6th District. As majority whip, he is the highest-ranking black legislator in Congress.
James Clyburn: Be steady. Stay focused.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And today, a conversation with Congressman James Clyburn. So we're in a time of great tumult right now, which reminds a lot of people of far-off times, long-ago days. And it reminds people of what we've seen in the South play out through the Civil Rights era. What was it like for you growing up in Sumter, South Carolina?
Clyburn: Sumter is the birthplace of the White Citizens Council. The first time the NAACP was really attacked in the state was a case in Sumter, South Carolina, a local lawyer trying to break the back of the NAACP. So I know a whole lot about that background here.
Lee: You got your start with the NAACP, but what was your initial impulse to get politically active? Was it some of these same issues that we saw playing out?
Clyburn: Yes. The reason I got involved in the NAACP at 12 years old is because of what was going on in the county next to me, Clarendon County. Brown v. Board of Education started out in Clarendon County, South Carolina, 23 miles where I'm from (UNINTEL). And so, remember, Brown v. Board of Education was five cases, one of which is in South Carolina.
Another was in Delaware. That's how I got to know Joe Biden so well. And we used to interact a lot over those kinds of issues. This incident though in Minneapolis really brought back a lot of memories to me. You know, the Emmett Till case was something that really sorta rocked the nation, the bombing of those children there in Birmingham, Alabama, all of that.
This was much like that. And I don't know. I can't explain it because Walter Scott was shot in the back running away from police officers there in my district, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Those nine souls murdered in the basement of Emanuel AME Church. That to me was as agregious as it gets.
In both those incidents though, the communities came together. Why is it then that we had this kind of reaction here, in Minneapolis? I think it's because a climate has been created in this country that people feel is being stacked against them. And so when I cried out in my caucus meeting, saying that this is an opportunity for us to restructure things in that vision of liberty and justice for all, Mitch McConnell went on the floor of the United States Senate and chastised me by position.
Mitch Mcconnell: While we finalize the CARES Act, the House parachuted in with miscellaneous liberal demands, completely unrelated to COVID-19. One senior House Democrat called the virus "a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision." So we ignored the left-wing wish list, and we stayed serious, and the CARES Act is still helping Americans bridge these temporary shutdowns.
Clyburn: As if what I was saying is something that I had no right to say, that I have no right to have a vision for this country. But I won't back away from that. The health care system in this country needs to be restructured. The education system needs to be restructured. The judicial system needs to be restructured.
And that to me is why people are reacting the way they are reacting, because they know that this president has created a climate in this country that stacks things against them. That's what is going on here. That's why people are reacting the way they're reacting not just in Minneapolis but all across this country and around this world. That to me makes this different.
Lee: But why are we still here? I understand that that is an example of all the symptoms of a core here. But after all these years, we're still dealing with these same issues. This president or not, we're still dealing with them. Why?
Clyburn: Simply because in this country progress moves like a pendulum on the clock. This country moves left for a while. Then it goes back right. And it goes back left again. That is just the way this country's always been. But I always say to young people, "Just remember this. When the country's going from the to left, it passes through the center.
"When it's going from left back right, it passes through the center. And what keeps this country relatively stable is the fact that it camps out in the center twice as much as it camps out left or right." So this country went left when they elect Barack Obama, and it started immediately to go back to the right.
Eight years later, we elect Donald Trump. I don't believe that the people who voted for them had any idea that they would see this guy take this country so far right until he threatens its mere existence. I sincerely believe that this country, if it doesn't course correct in this election, we have seen the crumbling of the foundation that has made this country what it is.
Lee: For young activists and organizers who are braving COVID-19, they're coming out into the streets because they believe that George Floyd but other black folks in this country need justice, how would you advise them to move in this moment when you have all of these other forces? How would you guide them through this moment?
Clyburn: When I met my wife in jail, I was protesting. So I know what it is to protest. But I also know, and John Lewis and I have talked about it a whole lot, that the student movement that we started together, SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, both of us were founders, founding members of that.
I also know that they got hijacked. It got taken away from us. It got infiltrated. And that's what's happening with these protestors. These protestors are being hijacked by people who've got no interest in seeing a resolution to these issues. And we have got to be careful about that.
Yes, protest, peaceably. But don't put it into their hands. And that's what Trump is trying to get them to do. One thing I learned playing sports. I played baseball, football growing up. And I learned if your opponent gets you to play his or her game on his or her court, they win. Violence is not our game. That's Trump's game. Insults, that's Trump's game. That's not our game. Let's don't play that game.
You know, I think I've said I met my wife in jail, and I'll never forget that as I'm walking back to the campus that night after I was bailed outta jail, we talked. This is my first time really meeting her, but I didn't know that this was part of her design. She knew what she was doing. I didn't know what she was doing. We end up getting married and stayed married for 58 years.
Clyburn: But we talked that night about what it is we were against. We decided that night we were on the wrong target, that we needed to refocus. And we did. And we won. You know what's right, and you know what's wrong. So do what's right and reject the wrong.
Lee: You talk about this idea of the political pendulum swinging. And we find ourselves again in this moment of fire, and rage, and anger. And you've come up through the Civil Rights Era. But were there missed opportunities or missteps? Is there any way that we could have avoided still being here?
Even after all the great change, the leaps that we made, we're still in this place where many young people would look at what's happening and say, "The system simply doesn't care about black life, that America might enjoy black culture but not black people." Was there a moment that we missed in the past?
Clyburn: No, I don't think so. There were moments when we were challenged. There are moments that we're still being challenged. The country as a whole has its challenges. I always say that we can be no more nor can be any less than what our experiences allow us to be. And so being black in America gives you a set of experiences that's different from anybody else's.
You know, my favorite animal is a turtle, and I keep them. Throughout my office, you will find a couple hundred turtles in my possession because I stay focused. I tell people the grace does not go to the swiftest but who endures to the end. Be steady, stay focused.
Lee: Sir, you've been steady for a very long time and focused, and you are the highest-ranking black member of Congress, and you've chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. And I want to ask you: What do you see as your responsibility in this moment?
Clyburn: Our responsibility within the next 30 days is to put forth a comprehensive set of legislative actions and go out to the public explaining to them what we're doing. Let's take one, for instance. Hakeem Jeffries is doing good work with his choke hold. He's been trying to get that bill passed how long? Hasn't gotten it passed. But he hasn't given up. I think he's gonna get it passed now.
We've gotta get rid of these laws that were passed, one they call Stand Your Ground. You and I both know that that law unleashed vigilantism out here against black people. That's what got Trayvon Martin killed. We need to get those laws off the books. We've got to professionalize policing in this country.
We hire police officers because they look the part and many times without the proper training. The policing in this country needs to be professionalized. Why is it that doctors and lawyers have to maintain periodic training, PE courses and all that kind of stuff, and we don't require anything like that for police officers? They have much more public contact than these other professions. That is gonna be part of the comprehensive piece of legislation that we're gonna put out here by the end of the month. That's what we're gonna be doing.
Lee: Do you think that you'll actually be able to move things through, given the tone, tenor, and stance of this administration?
Clyburn: Yes, I do. Not because Trump wants it. But I believe that if a big enough groundswell comes out here, we already passed it. The bulk of all of this has passed the House. It's in the HEROES Act. Enough press out here, if the thing gets put on the docket over in the Senate, I think it'll pass the Senate. And public pressure is everything. And I think this president can be forced to sign it from the public.
The public's gotta get engaged in this. You know, I'm fine in my congressional district. They know I'm gonna fight for this. But then we gotta get other people fighting for this as well in other congressional districts all over this country and other states. So I think, yes, it can get done. But if it doesn't, then hopefully we'll have a new president who will understand why it must get done and get it done in the first 100 days of his administration.
Lee: Congressman Clyburn, you mentioned the new president. And after the break, I want to talk to you a little bit about the man who is running to beat President Trump this fall, Joe Biden. Stick with us.
Lee: So, congressman, you've been credited along with a bunch of your constituents, especially black folks in South Carolina, in really reinvigorating Joe Biden's campaign. But when you have the lethality of COVID-19, you have the unrest and all the police violence, does Joe Biden, does he owe a specific debt, a specific responsibility to black folks to rectify whatever we're seeing right now?
Lee: There we go. Yes. (LAUGH) Will that take any nudging? Obviously, that's your guy. But what do you think he will do that's been different than past presidents?
Clyburn: Well, you know, we did things incremental. A lot of people, I won't call it gradualism. I think the incrementalism is something that I think we ought to really give respect to. Barack Obama did something with health care that had been on the docket of every president since Theodore Roosevelt. Not Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt.
It's been around for 100 years, universal access to health care. Joe Biden has already said if he's elected he will build upon the Affordable Care Act. And I want to say something here that I probably shouldn't bring this up, but I will. That 1994 crime bill that people keep trying to wrap around Joe Biden's neck, I wish people would really take the time and look at what the crime bill was when we passed it in the spring of 1994 and what the crime bill became after Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives in the fall, November of 1994.
The 1994 crime bill today has the same name, but it's not the same bill. Community policing, 200,000 cops on the street, that's gone. The violence against women was in that act. Now, much of that came back. The assault weapons, gone. We outlawed a lot of mandatory sentences. The mandatory sentencing didn't come in the 1994 crime bill. That came in 1986. And people got it all conflated. And so what I'm saying that elections have consequences.
Lee: People will say though that regardless of how it changed, a lot of folks still voted for it. And it had such damage to the black community. Is it your contention that you tried your best and that's politics?
Clyburn: I know what people say. And all I'm saying to you, they do not have it as right as they think. That crime bill got changed time and time again. That's all I'm saying.
Lee: Gotcha. There have been a lot of progressives calling for Joe Biden to tap a black woman as VP. A lot of pressure. And the moment we find ourselves in now, should that figure in his calculation at all, given that black folks are crying out for not just leadership but serious change?
Clyburn: Oh, I think I've heard that Val Demings has been vetted. I've heard that Kamala Harris is being vetted. Someone told me Susan Rice is being vetted.
Lee: Well, you would know, right? 'Cause you're on the inside, right? You would know, right?
Clyburn: No, I wouldn't. No.
Lee: You wouldn't know?
Clyburn: No, I have no idea. I just know what I've been told. No, I'm not inside the campaign. I have a pretty big job in the House of Representatives. So I'm letting Biden and the professionals run the campaign. I'm staying out of the campaign. I'm gonna do my job. I did my job in the South Carolina primary and on Super Tuesday. I'll turn it over to them, let them go ahead and do their job. Hopefully, my friends like Cedric Richmond and Marcus Mason will make sure that I don't get disappointed.
Lee: Do you think white America wants the change that black America is calling for?
Clyburn: There is a big segment of white America that's for this change. If you don't believe it, look at the results of the South Carolina primary back on February 29th and look at the voting patterns. You will see that in white suburbs that had not been voting in the Democratic primary in recent years voted overwhelmingly in that primary for Biden.
Now, everybody looked at my endorsement and black folks' participation, but I've looked beyond that and I see some voting patterns and I know why Jaime Harrison is running so well against Lindsey Graham. And that's why you will never hear me say that Trump is playing to his base. I always say there is an element in his base that he's playing to. There are a lot of people in his base that are walking away.
Lee: I want to ask you this not as Rep. Clyburn but as Mr. Clyburn, as a black man who's seen a lot over the years. In this moment, are you hopeful for the future and what comes next? Are you scared of what could be next?
Clyburn: Yes, I am hopeful. Yes, I am afraid. I actually am. I am fearful for the future of this country. I am hopeful that we will not allow this one man who has very low regard for the constitutional principles upon which this country was built, who seems to be devoid of any compassion for other people. Hopefully, we will not allow that to be the future of this country. The electorate got fooled once. Now, that's on him. But if we get fooled twice, that's gonna be on us.
Lee: What advice would you give to America right now?
Clyburn: I would say to this country look at what Alexis de Tocqueville said to us as a country back in 1835, '36 when he wrote his two-volume book on the greatness of this country. Alexis de Tocqueville said, "America's greatness is not that it is more enlightened than any other nation but rather because it has always been able to repair its faults."
This pandemic, this murder of George Floyd have pulled back the curtain on some faults that exist in this country. Let's get to work and repair those faults. Let's repair our health care system, our educational system, our judicial system. And I believe if we do, we shall overcome.
Lee: Mr. Clyburn, I want to thank you so much. You obviously are a giant among men and we appreciate your time. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
Clyburn: Thank you for having me.
Lee: Congressman James Clyburn is majority whip and a Democrat representing South Carolina's 6th Congressional District. It's been about two weeks since George Floyd was killed, two weeks of anger, and anguish, and pain, but also two weeks of America wrestling with itself over who we've been, who we are, and for some who are striving to become.
The Into America team has worked hard this past week to unpack what this moment actually means for all of us, and we thank you truly for joining us along the way. And check your podcast feeds this weekend. We've got a look at the fight between religious freedom and public health that is playing out all across the country as a result of coronavirus. That episode drops Saturday.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back again tomorrow.