Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is no stranger to the struggle to reconcile America’s constitutional allegiance to liberty and democracy with legislative efforts that promote its selective application. From his humble beginnings in Sumter, S.C. to political dexterity as the third highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Clyburn has led an extraordinary life. In his new memoir, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, Clyburn details his “Saul to Paul transition,” which was precipitated by witnessing legendary civil rights attorney Matthew Perry in court as a child. He noted that this encounter would ultimately lend itself to his political ascension and President Barack Obama describing him as, “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”
Written, in part, to document his own experiences in government, Clyburn said he also wanted to encourage the many young African Americans he has encountered not to give up when obstacles seem insurmountable.
“I don’t think anyone would deny that young African Americans back in the early part of the last century were schooled and brainwashed into believing that there was something inferior about being Black. Blackness is not a condition that anybody ordered for themselves and therefore not a condition to which anyone has license to assign value,” Clyburn told the AFRO in an exclusive interview Nov. 21. “My mother and my father made sure that I would feel that way and I’ve tried to make sure my children feel that as well. I open this book with a letter to my children – and those similarly challenged – that they ought to conduct themselves a certain way despite the challenges they may face.”
But in an age where segments of the American population believe a pseudo-euphoric shift has occurred, eliminating the need for race-based legislation or consideration—or even civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, Clyburn faces both apathy from those most in need and an under-appreciation for collective engagement.
“There is part of the book that talks about roles. Years ago as a student I was arrested for a protest and the person responsible for raising bail money, Reverend Newman, was also arrested unbeknownst to me. It was three days before we got out of jail. I was in the same suit, shirt, and underclothes during that three days. What was supposed to have been a three hour stay in jail for protesting, turned into three days. I determined at that time that we would never get our roles confused again,” Clyburn said. “Everyone has their roles and we have to play our roles. People tend to assign worthiness to different roles; however, we all have critical roles to perform and none is more important than the other. If I do my job in the Congress and you do yours on the city council and the other person does theirs on the county council or legislatures, the job gets done. We all have roles to play and they must be played well.”
Clyburn told the AFRO that convincing the average citizen to become civically engaged, however, has become the real conflict. The eye-opener for him came during November’s mid-term elections when he encountered a woman who took issue with the manner in which her children were being educated, but refused to vote.
“I tried to explain that her participation would ensure she could elect better people to the school board, but she said she would not get ‘mixed up’ in voting. That is where our real battle is. She did not want to get mixed up in the political process,” Clyburn said.
Similarly, Clyburn pointed to the 6 percent voter turnout in Ferguson in November to note that there is much work to be done to help citizens understand the connections between failure to exercise suffrage rights and suffering social inequalities.
“In 2012 when Barack Obama was running for re-election, 70 percent went to vote for him, but it is in these local elections that people don’t want to participate—where the police chief, school board, and those impacting their day-to-day experiences are elected to office. Ferguson is 67 percent Black, but many are buying into this narrative of inferiority. We have to take some responsibility for some of this stuff taking hold. I can’t blame others for trying to perpetrate a fraud; I have to blame us for capitulating that fraud. This 2014 election says to me that we may not be drinking the Kool-Aid, but we are sipping it. I’ve got to warn everyone before we start gulping it or we are going to relive some of what we thought we had fought and won years ago.”