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Congressman James Clyburn discusses biography at RCC

Nate Homan
Congressman James Clyburn discusses biography at RCC
U.S. Rep James E. Clyburn. (Banner Photo)

Roxbury Community College hosted an evening with civil rights champion Congressman James E. Clyburn on Thursday evening, who was promoting his autobiography, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.

Born in Sumter, South Carolina on July 21, 1940, Clyburn began his career as teaching history in public schools of Charleston.

Clyburn was elected to congress in 1992. In 2002, he became the Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus and became the House Majority Whip in 2006. He is currently the Assistant Democratic Leader, which is the third highest position in the Democratic Party.

Prior to his congressional career, he was an activist during a volatile period in the American South. He was elected president of the NAACP youth chapter at the age of 12, graduated high school at 16 and recalled staying up all night talking until 4 a.m. with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was 19. Clyburn’s book title, Blessed Experiences, fits the tumultuous path he walked. He happened upon a blessing in disguise in the midst of grim circumstances when he met his wife, Emily, in a jail cell during one of his arrests for civil disobedience.

“Jail works pretty good for some people,” he chuckled. “Worked fine for us. We just celebrated our 53rd anniversary. But I’m not advising anyone to go to any jail looking for a spouse.”

A younger life of fervent civil rights activism paved the way to a life of political aspiration. His policy-oriented passion on civil rights issues resonate with current events, including the ongoing tensions, protests, and violent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

“People cannot sit on their laurels because, as we have noticed over the last 72 hours, we are about to relive some things that we thought were behind us,” Clyburn said.

“There are forces that would like to turn the clock back. When you build a narrative for centuries that certain people are not equipped to run things, to make laws and to run the country and then you wake up one morning and there is a person of color running the country, your job is to change that very narrative which you have been living and breathing for all those years. People often shy away from it. But there’s a blessing of being over the age of 70 where you say what you darn well please and you don’t give a hoot. I’ve reached that point.”

Clyburn named his book after an instance where he was in the governor’s office. John West was a progressive Governor who pushed progressive legislation in 1970. There were legislators who were less than thrilled with these policies.

He sat in on committee meetings monitoring legislators’ reactions to the governor’s proposals. In one meeting, a legislator had gone beyond the bounds of decency. When Clyburn called him out on it, he said, “well Clyburn, you have to understand that I’m a southerner.”

“I didn’t think being a southerner gave you license to be insulting. Nor did I believe that you could say things that were unbecoming of an office that you held.”

At the end of the day, he decided he would write a book called I Too Am a Southerner.

“I wanted to write about what being a Southerner meant to me and what I thought it should mean to the region.”

About half way through the process, he hit the wall of writer’s block; something he didn’t believe existed prior. “You just sit there as if your brain is numb.”

He sat in a corner in his house to contemplate and recalled his father, a fundamentalist minister, would take his last meal at 6 p.m. on Friday and wouldn’t eat another full meal until after his church services on Sunday.

Clyburn said his father would spend Saturday reading and writing. When he took a break, he’d hum his favorite hymn, Blessed Assurance. He drew inspiration from the words of the hymn and the memory of his father and he said the words then flowed from him.

He told the room that his father had a 1937 Chevy.

“You could hit a telegram pole with that truck, put it in reverse and keep driving. But, that Chevy seemed to know when it was Saturday, because it would just stop running. We took it to the neighborhood mechanic.”

He and his two younger brothers started to roughhouse and his father told them to go out into the field nearby.

“My brothers and I got into a discussion, which some onlookers might have called it a fight,” Clyburn said. “It was not a fight. It was a physical discussion. My dad was watching us. He called out to us once he thought that discussion went on long enough.”

He said his father had a piece of string in his hands. He lined up his sons and gave each of them a piece of string and asked them to snap it, a task that neither boy could accomplish. His father then put the string in his palms and rubbed them together, unraveling the string into three pieces. He gave a piece to his sons, and kept one himself. All three could snap the string without much effort. It was then that his father said, “don’t you let the small disagreements between you grow into such friction that they separate you. If you do, the world will pop you apart and you may never know why.”

Clyburn said that that message resonated with him throughout his years as an activist and carried over into his political career as well as his personal life. His message that he imparted on the crowded room was that of hope in the face of defeat.

“I ran for office for the first time in 1970,” he said. “I lost. I ran again in 1978. I lost. I ran again in 1986. I lost. And a friend said ‘what are you going to do now? Three strikes.’ I said to her, that’s a baseball rule. No one should live their lives by baseball rules.”

Guests lined up to have their books signed once the Congressman finished his speech.

“I’ve followed the congressman throughout his career. He is a legend in paving the way for us as a generation coming into elected office,” state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said.

“His cousin representative, Willie Mae Allen, served with me in the House of Representatives before Russell Holmes. She lives in Mattapan and is a good friend. We’ve talked a lot about growing up in the south and the work congressman Clyburn has done for a long, long time. It’s wonderful to have him here and for him to take the time to be here and meet us.”