As the son of a beauty shop proprietress and a Church of God pastor, Congressman Jim Clyburn himself could have inspired the Obama campaign’s strategy for turning out the crucial black vote to win the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary.
In that game-changing primary, Obama ground troops upset the Hillary machine by foregoing the Palmetto State’s decades-old model for courting black voters — working top-down through church leadership — and instead pursued individual voters in black-owned barber and beauty shops, as well as in the pews.
In recognizing that South Carolina’s black voters didn’t need to hear from the pulpit to make a decision about whom to support — didn’t need to be treated so much as a bloc, but as free-thinking individuals — the Obama campaign managed to energize a coveted demographic long known for being difficult to mobilize. In doing so, the campaign also earned the admiration of Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement with an arrest record to prove it, who had pledged neutrality in his home state’s primary.
Eventually, Obama also earned Clyburn’s vote, if not his public support. For his perceived disloyalty, however, Clyburn drew the ire of President Bill Clinton — who, it can be fairly said, showed his ass once his wife lost, trying to pin blame elsewhere.
While Clyburn has long enjoyed a high profile in South Carolina — having broken the color barrier at the State House by joining Democratic Gov. John West’s administration in 1971, and having become the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction in 1992 — his role as the unofficial referee of South Carolina’s fiercely contested 2008 primary, and his ensuing dustup with President Clinton, made him an even bigger national name. And with more than 20 years in Congress, he has the political clout in Washington to match that profile.
Despite the Republican Party’s long-running dominance in South Carolina, the majority-black Sixth Congressional District — a textbook example of finely filigreed gerrymandering that encompasses most of the state’s rural, impoverished black belt running along I-95 — has a powerful, liberal advocate in Jim Clyburn. Since 1992, he’s grown to become far more than just South Carolina’s most impressive procurer of federal largesse since Strom Thurmond, a knack for which he is steadfastly unapologetic. Today, he’s an influential voice who helps shape national policy.
Last week, Clyburn spoke with Free Times about South Carolina politics and his forthcoming memoir, Blessed Experiences: Proudly Black and Genuinely Southern, due out in May from the University of South Carolina Press. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.
FT: In the context of your career, what does this book mean to you?
James Clyburn: [Gov.-elect] John West invited me to a meeting in November of 1970. Phil [Grose, Clyburn’s recently deceased friend and confidante, who helped him write the book] and I met that day, and he introduced me to my first experience with big-time politics. The governor was offering me a job, and I was in the process of turning the job down.
And when I walked out of the office, Phil walked up to me and said, “You’ve got a phone call.” I said, “A phone call? Who knows that I’m here?” He said, “It’s Barbara Williams from the Post and Courier.” I picked up the phone and Barbara says, “Well?” I said, “Well what?” She said, “Are you going to take the job?”
Phil had leaked to her that they were offering me a job. I said, “Well, Barbara, I don’t know.” She said, “How are you going to turn the governor down?”
So, that was [my] introduction [to politics], and Phil and I became fast friends. One day we were sitting around talking and he says, “You know, when this administration is over, we have to collaborate on a book. But maybe we have to wait till both of us are ready to leave state government.”
One day, [Phil and I were discussing an incident in which] a legislator made an [offensive] public statement, [and] he was called on it. His excuse for having said what he did was, “Well, you know, I’m a Southerner.” Phil and I were talking about that, and I said, “You know Phil, my mother and father were born and raised in South Carolina, my father in Kershaw County and my mother in Lee County. I was born in Sumter. I, too, am a Southerner, so how would I fit into that statement?” He said, “Maybe that ought to be the title of your book — I, Too, Am a Southerner. I started out writing that book.
It was going well, but then all of a sudden I hit a wall. I just couldn’t write. Finally one day I remembered my dad. Every Friday around 6 o’clock, he would take his last meal and he would not eat again until after church on a Sunday. He would be spending all day Saturday eating nothing but bread, drinking nothing but water, writing and reading and writing and reading, and he’d always be humming this song, “Blessed Assurance.”
So I said, “I wonder what my dad got from that song.” I went and got the hymnal, and by the third verse, I could see what my dad saw. Then I did some research on the song. Turns out the lady who wrote the lyrics to the song and my father’s mother had the same first name, Phoebe. [Clyburn reaches for a black and white photo on a bookshelf.] This is Phoebe right here. Died in 1901.
So I said, I got the wrong title for this book. That’s when I changed it to Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black. It captured the spirit, but it also captured the fact that I, too, am a Southerner. I am a black Southerner, and real proud of it. And it just flowed from there.
I had to take a lot of stuff out, 36,000 words. [Clyburn had written longer than the contract specified.] There was a very horrific experience I had. I could have very well have ended up like Trayvon Martin, and I took that out of the book. It was in there before I ever heard about Trayvon Martin, but I decided to cut that because someone would say I was playing on it.
FT: Would you share that experience with us?
JC: Sure. It happened in the football season of 1955. I talked my mother into letting me drive out to what was then Eastern High School, which was the rural black high school [in Sumter County]. Eastern High School didn’t have a [marching] band, so they invited our band to play for their homecoming. My mom allowed me to drive, so Bubba, that’s what we called Charles Gadsen, and Brother, that’s what we called Freddie Carter, could go out to the homecoming with me. You know, 15 years old, we were running after girls together.
So [that day], the three of us [went to] a store on the main highway to get something for lunch. We were buying sodas and honey buns or whatever we had money to buy, and the guy, he was overcharging us. I said, “Wait a minute. You’re charging us too much.” I started counting out what we had. Whatever the item was, he said it cost twice. I said, “I thought this cost 15 cents.” He said, “Well, you got another thought coming.” I said, “OK, goddammit, I’ll think again.” The guys [with me] said, “Hey man, cut this out.”
So we left the store and got out to the car. I got into the driver’s side, and, as I reached for the ignition, this guy walked out the store with a pistol about this long. I found out later it’s called a Colt .45. He came to the car and laid that pistol inside the window. He said, “You still owe me 50 cents.” We didn’t owe him 50 cents. Bubba started yelling and screaming, and he jumped out of the car and gave him the 50 cents. We finally drove away. I’m not too sure what would have happened if [Bubba and Brother] weren’t between me and this guy, because I was back then about like I am now. I wasn’t giving in. They were yelling and crying and giving the guy the money. That was in the book and I took all that stuff out.
Now, what’s chilling about this is that my sophomore or junior year at South Carolina State, I got a phone call from one of those guys. This guy shot and killed a 14-year-old black guy. The store’s still there, just before Turbeville on Highway 378. I see it every time I pass by. It’s not in business, but the cinder block building is still there.
FT: In your book, you describe the violent tragedy that occurred on Feb. 8, 1968 as “the event that came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.” I know your friend Phil Grose, who worked in Gov. Bob McNair’s administration, bristled at that name for the shootings. Do you sympathize with his opinion that “Orangeburg Massacre” was an inaccurate, sensationalistic characterization of that tragedy? Or was that phrasing out of deference to Phil?
JC: That’s exactly what it was. Phil was a big, big fan of Bob McNair. He always felt that Bob McNair would have been on the ticket with Hubert Humphrey [in 1968] were it not for the Orangeburg Massacre. And, not only that, he always felt it would have been the difference for Hubert Humphrey. Remember it was a very close race. He felt that with Bob McNair on the [presidential] ticket, Hubert Humphrey would have won, and he felt that very strongly, and he went to his grave disliking Jack Bass immensely. [Bass and Jack Nelson documented the Orangeburg shootings in the 1970 book The Orangeburg Massacre.]
Jack still won’t turn that loose. To this day, he won’t turn it loose. Well, I wrote it that way because Phil was helping me organize this [book], and he was proofing stuff, and I really didn’t want to insult him. Quite frankly, because of his influence, I have never supported reopening that case. Jack, if he’s had one he’s had a dozen conversations with me about supporting his call for a full-fledged investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre, and I’ve never done it.
FT: Do you think all the questions about that day were answered?
JC: No, it’s because of Phil. I don’t believe all the questions were answered, but I’m just not going to do it. I would say, if there are degrees and percentages, it is basically out of loyalty to my friend.
FT: Passages from your book about your occasionally strained relationship with President Bill Clinton have already grabbed headlines. Those incidents came before and after the ’08 primary in South Carolina. How is your relationship with the Clintons today?
JC: It’s always been very, very pleasant —before and after — with Hillary. Bill and I’ve talked since then and it was cordial. I say in the book that we had a chat, which one might say allowed for bygones to be bygones.
FT: So y’all are good now?
JC: We’re all right. [Laughing hard.]
FT: Going further back, could you talk about your battles with some of South Carolina’s environmental groups? These groups are usually seen as progressive, yet you, as South Carolina’s only [socially] progressive congressman, have butted heads with them on more than one occasion. How did that come about?
JC: One of the things I think exists in our society is that there are several Catch-22s that I think impede progress and rupture relationships. I think the classic one is over this bridge that I still think needs to be built.
If a bridge were over [Lake Marion] connecting Highway 33 coming out of Orangeburg with 122 that comes out of Sumter, it would create a corridor between Sumter and Orangeburg that’s the ideal place for retreats, recreational stuff and all kinds of ways for South Carolina to capitalize on this tourist trade for tourists who cannot afford and may not even be interested in going to Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach.
Now, the reason [environmentalists] gave for opposing this bridge is that it would destroy, I forget how many, nine or 10 acres of wetlands. Well, all of the wetlands they talked about, none of them are connected to the lake.
Under [federal] regulations, a ditch [that holds water] becomes [classified as] a wetland. Why are those ditches there? Those ditches are there because when I was growing up — I grew up over there — they didn’t pave roads in black communities. They would dig ditches for the water to drain, and they would have these tractors that would scrape the roads.
So I get to the Congress and I decide, ‘OK, we dug the ditches to keep from paving the roads, but today, in order to pave the roads, you’ve got to cover the ditches.’ So [the environmentalists] say, ‘We’re going to stop you from covering the ditches because those ditches are now wetlands.’ … I just think it’s very disingenuous, and I have not held back on that at all.
FT: There’s a passage you wrote that says, ‘No matter how tortuous I have found many of my experiences to be, I have never questioned their efficacies or failed to find a blessing in all of them — with the possible exception of my efforts on behalf of S.C. State.’ — Could you elaborate?
JC: When I was running the Human Affairs Commission, South Carolina State and all the other Southern schools were sued over equitable funding. The lawsuit contended that these Southern schools were not funding higher education for blacks on par with funding higher education for whites. Dick Riley gets elected [governor] and Dick decided he wanted to be the education governor, and he wanted to get South Carolina out from under that lawsuit.
There were two big parts to [Riley’s] plan. One was that each state-supported institution of higher learning would be granted a unique mission, and South Carolina State’s unique mission was a terminal degree in education. No other school supported by the state would be allowed that particular discipline. Anybody in the state, black or white, if you want to get a terminal degree in education, you have to go to South Carolina State to get it. The second thing was that the business community would get together and establish an endowment, which did not exist at South Carolina State. Those were the two big things.
That was submitted to the federal court. The federal court accepted it and took South Carolina out of the lawsuit. All of the other Southern states went on being sued. South Carolina came out. About three years later, the Higher Education Commission granted Nova [Southeastern] University in Florida authorization to set up shop in South Carolina and offer the same degree. Therefore, South Carolina State’s unique mission was gone. Now let me tell you how that worked. South Carolina State’s student body had gotten up to 10 percent white. I don’t think it’s 1 percent anymore.
FT: And that undercut progress at South Carolina State?
JC: Undercut it big time. And that bothered me to no end. One day, I’d been talking with [my wife] Emily about our schoolmates and classmates stepping up to help fund an endowment, because the business community never did their piece. Never did it. I was speaking to the South Carolina State alumni up in D.C., and I announced that night what I thought we needed to do as alumni. I said, “Now, I’m going to lead by example on this one. Within the next three years, Emily and I are going to raise a million dollars and set up a million-dollar endowment at the school.” I think they thought I’d stayed too long at the bar. But we did it. We got that endowment up to $1.7 million.
Now, when I was on the Transportation Committee, when we started re-authorizing the transportation bill, there were about five or six university transportation centers in the country. I ended up on the conference committee. The night the deal was cut to close the bill, at about 11 o’clock, my staffer Danny Cromer called me and said, ‘Congressman, I think we finally got us a bill.’ I said, ‘Is there anything unusual that I need to be aware of?’ … He said, ‘No, there’s nothing unusual, but there’s one thing that’s kind of interesting. They’ve increased the number of transportation centers from five or six to 32.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they’re setting up these centers. They carry about $10 million with it.’ I said, ‘Well, did they put one in South Carolina?’
Now if they’d put one up at Clemson or Carolina, I’d never said a word, but when he said no, I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m sitting on the committee and they’re going to have 32 transportation centers and I ain’t going to get one? You go back in that meeting and tell them, I am not going to sign the conference report unless I get one in South Carolina.’ He called me back around 12:30 that night and said, ‘We got one, but you need to tell them whether you want to put it at Carolina or Clemson.’ By this time, I’d had just enough Jack Daniels and said, ‘Neither.’ I said, ‘I want it at South Carolina State. This is a chance to restore a unique mission.’
That’s how [the transportation center] got there. It’s a cost reimbursement contract. It’s not a grant. It’s cost reimbursement. Simply put, that means, you can’t get the money until you incur the cost. They’ve been writing stories for four or five years that there’s $50 million missing out of the transportation center at South Carolina State. That’s the biggest lie that’s ever been printed in a newspaper.
FT: Where did the allegation come from?
JC: It came from one guy. I think you know who it is. I won’t call his name.
There are some powers that be in this state that want very much to close the school. I know that. They asked me to support it, and I told them if it had to be my last political death, I would never support it. Now, right now, there are five historically black [four-year] colleges in North Carolina. There are three in Georgia. There are about five in Mississippi. There were five or six, maybe down to four or five now, down in Alabama. South Carolina has never had but one. One. I told them when they came to me, I said, ‘Y’all may do it, but you will never get support from me and I will never be quiet about it.’
FT: A lot of South Carolina Democrats appear to be running away from the Affordable Care Act. What do you think about that as a political strategy?
JC: I think it may rank up there with seceding from the Union as far as being dumb. Government ought to exist for the benefit of the citizens. South Carolina is a poor state, and it shouldn’t be. We have more resources than most states.
Here we are: A state that ranks near the bottom in per capita income. We rank near the bottom in all the health indices. This state is too sick and too poor to have the position it’s got on the Affordable Care Act.
Now, I said to Kathleen Sebelius, I said to Barack Obama, to his teeth, to all of his staffers, “You’re making a mistake putting this rollout solely via the Internet.” I didn’t have any idea it would crash.
FT: In your book, you talk about how the 2008 primary gave South Carolina some clout in the Democratic column. Back then, Obama campaign staff could be heard bragging about having built great grassroots, get-out-the-vote networks in all 46 counties for the South Carolina Democratic Party. But South Carolina Democrats haven’t made gains since then: What’s happened?
JC: Because all of that left with them. That is my bone of contention with that organization right now. They did have things in place in 2008. Then they left the field, not just in South Carolina. The reason we have this big Tea Party movement today, the reason we didn’t get the public option, is because in 2010 they left the field and we lost the election. Now, the reason I believe that we are poised to surprise some people is because [S.C. Democratic Party Chairman] Jaime Harrison, for whatever reason, how he did it I don’t know, he’s convinced the Obama people to come back on the field.
FT: In what capacity?
JC: I think that whole system that they had in [Virginia for Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial race] is being put in place in South Carolina. That’s why you see somebody like [state Sen. Brad] Hutto stepping up [to challenge U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham]…. I think they have been made to realize that Jaime is being real about this. I’m impressed with him. It ain’t no secret. I sent the party $100,000 last week. Absolutely, and I’m going to send them more, because I believe in what they’re doing.
FT: Your public support for gay marriage came out unexpectedly. What compelled you to speak out on that when you did? A lot of reliable Jim Clyburn voters don’t agree with that position.
JC: No, they don’t. I really had a transformation on that. I don’t have anything against anybody’s lifestyle, but I was born and raised in a parsonage. I was taught aspects of fundamental Christianity that a lot of people didn’t necessarily embrace. And I started thinking about all the nuances of my background and my experience. My wife was born and raised a Methodist. She’s a much better Christian than I am. She’s never been dunked, because the Methodists sprinkle. The church that I grew up in, if you have not been dunked, you’re going to hell, man.
But I thought about all that kind of stuff and I said, “Who am I to judge?” We’re taught in the fundamentals of Christianity, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” It must have happened in my sleep. I just woke up one day and I had been transformed. I don’t know how it happened. It just did, and I’m as comfortable with that decision as I’ve ever been.
FT: Mayor Steve Benjamin is taking a lot of heat over this baseball stadium. His critics accuse him of being uncivil and ignoring citizens’ legitimate concerns. Any advice for Mayor Benjamin?
JC: I do, but I always give it to him in private. I had a long talk with the mayor today.
FT: You make no secret about your feelings toward Mark Sanford in your book. Now that y’all are back in Washington together, is it like Bosom Buddies all over again?
JC: [Laughs.] Somebody asked the other day if I’m going to give copies to all the members [of Congress]. I said, “Yeah, I’m going to give them to all the members.” And somebody who’d seen the book said, “Are you sure you’re going to give one to Mark Sanford?” I don’t think so. I’m going to make him buy it. [More laughter.]
FT: Do y’all see much of each other?
JC: Oh, I see him often. Mark is an interesting guy. Very interesting. I see him a lot. In fact, a couple of months ago I was sitting in the Democratic Club, and sitting down at the table next to me was Mark Sanford. I don’t know what the hell he was doing in there. One night about two months ago. I have no idea. Very weird.
FT: Explain your relationship with the Lizard Man.
JC: What’s funny about the Lizard Man, my mother was born and raised out in Browntown, that [community outside Bishopville] where the Lizard Man was from. When I was a kid, we used to go out to visit her dad. He had a big farm out there on Browntown Road. We’d go up in them cherry trees and we’d be eating them, hot in July, we’d be eating them damn cherries, man. You’d be drunk as hell.
FT: Because they’d ferment on the branch?
JC: Yeah, man. People fall out the trees. So when the thing came out about the Lizard Man, one day I was trying to figure out how to break the ice in a speech I was about to give, and it was just one of those times when I couldn’t get a feel for this audience.
The Lizard Man thing was going on and it came to me. I said, “Some of you may be aware of my background. In fact, my mother was born in Browntown, Lizard Man country. Y’all have been reading about the Lizard Man.”
I said, “Some of y’all may doubt that the Lizard Man was seen, but I know, because I have seen the Lizard Man.” I said, “When I was a kid and we’d visit my grandfather out there in the Browntown section, we’d climb up there in those cherry trees in July and I’m telling you, if you eat enough of those cherries on a July day, you’d see the Lizard Man, too.”
FT: You’ve drawn a black Republican challenger for this election cycle. Black Republicans are becoming increasingly visible in South Carolina. Several are running for office. Does this signify any shift in a traditionally unified black electorate?
JC: No, I don’t think so. I think it signifies some real serious recruiting taking place, and it ought to be. I’m comfortable with that. I don’t have anything against black Republicans. My daddy was one.
FT: What’s it like being South Carolina’s only progressive elected official with a national profile?
JC: It’s lonely. South Carolina suffers because we have such a lack of affinity for progressive politics. It seems to me that a state like this one cannot develop the way it ought to by holding on to the past. We seem insecure as a state. I’m not an insecure person, and it’s very uncomfortable when I’m confronted with so much insecurity. I don’t know why that is, because this state developed because of rugged individualism, which makes you secure.
It seems to me that if you have such a fundamental belief in the Bible, how can you square that belief with the way South Carolinians tend to treat people? Everything we do in our government seems to be designed to put powerless people down, and the Bible teaches us that part of our mission as people of faith is to lift people up. If your brother and sister come to you hungry and naked, it’s not enough to tell them to go on faith. It’s not enough to pray for them. People say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Yeah, pray for me when you go home tonight, but while you’re sitting here in this legislature, pass some laws to allow me to feel like praying for myself.
We tend to pass everything off to the Lord. My dad, you can’t be more fundamental than my dad. He taught me, the Republican conservative that he was, ‘Son,’ he would say, ‘when you leave the room, turn the lights out. You have to conserve energy. … If you make a dollar, you ought to be able to save a nickel.’ Conserve, conserve, conserve — I was taught that. But on Sunday mornings, he’d never ask his congregations to give conservatively. He always asked for a liberal offering.
So I learned at an early age that there are times when it’s in the best interest to be conservative, but there are times when it’s in the best interest of your mission in life to be liberal, and if a person has got a problem with giving liberally, with sharing, with living and letting live, I don’t want to be around that person. And we have too many people in South Carolina government who refuse to practice what they preach.
We used to sing a song at my dad’s church, “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.” And there’s a Biblical passage: “Here, my Lord, send me.” So I decided I’m going. I don’t give a damn if nobody else comes along. I’m going to feel satisfied.
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