Congressman Clyburn Reflects On A Life Of 'Blessed Experiences'

South Carolina Representative James Clyburn's new memoir Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black shares lessons learned on his way from the Jim Crow South to a top spot on Capitol Hill.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. If you follow politics at all, then you probably know that Congressman James Clyburn is one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill. The South Carolina native first elected in 1992 is now the third-ranking Democrat serving in the House, known both for his Southern charm and for his willingness to fight hard when he thinks the occasion warrants.

But what you might not know about are his years in the trenches in the civil rights movement long before he got to Congress, the three unsuccessful elections along the way and what keeps him going now. He talks about all of this in his remarkably candid new memoir, "Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black." And Congressman James Clyburn was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I said the book is candid. So let me tell you how it starts. When you say your Blackberry vibrated at 2 a.m. on a January morning in 2008, and you say that there was a very familiar voice on the other end - OK, language warning here - saying, if you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one. And that voice was the voice of...

CLYBURN: Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States.

MARTIN: And he was highly upset that Mrs. Clinton had just been defeated in the South Carolina primary. Why did you want to open the book this way?

CLYBURN: My intentions were to open the book with what is now Chapter 18. But the good friend of mine that had been working with me over the years - we'd worked together in the governor's office - said to me, that is OK, except that people associate you with politics in the present. And the book will probably be much more attractive to people if you were to open the book with something very political, very cogent...

MARTIN: That people remember.

CLYBURN: ...That people remember.

MARTIN: They remember that you all were fighting. Well, you say you later made up.

CLYBURN: Yes. Yes, we did. And I don't think there was anything real that had to be made up. He supported his spouse, as we all would. She had lost. And he was very disappointed. And he registered that disappointment. But he felt that I was greatly responsible for her loss. I don't think so. I think that history was in the making.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons, though, I was interested in the fact that you told this anecdote and opened the book with it is that it is kind of a recurring theme, which is that race has been both a driving force and an animating force in your life...

CLYBURN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...But also something that you have continually hoped would not be in some ways.

CLYBURN: But I was also taught at a very early age - is that some things will always be there. And I think race is something that, irrespective of how much we may try, it will always be there.

MARTIN: Let me talk to you about that because one of the things that you do in the book is you describe some of the day-to-day indignities...

CLYBURN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That you grew up with...

CLYBURN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...You and the other people who you continually say, as you put it in the book, people who look like me...

CLYBURN: Right.

MARTIN: ...Or people who look like you...

CLYBURN: Right.

MARTIN: ...Were forced to endure. I'm thinking about, for example, when you and your fellow marching bandmates...

CLYBURN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Were forced to the back of a big parade, behind even the horses...

CLYBURN: Yep.

MARTIN: ...And, you know, everything the horses leave behind and, like, what that feels like...

CLYBURN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To kind of not just be, like, a one-time thing, but an all-the-time thing. And I was just wondering, gee, you know, the scar tissue...

CLYBURN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...That has to come with that.

CLYBURN: Yes, it comes, and it's there. It will never leave. I told my three children there are certain things that will happen to you in your life that will even out. I told my daughter - and this is in the book - when she went away to college, I says, look, when you get up on that campus, a lot of things are going to happen to you that look pretty good because you're Jim Clyburn's daughter. A lot of things are going to happen to you that ain't so good because you're Jim Clyburn's daughter.

But all of that will even out.

Then I told her, there are some things that's going to happen to you because you're a woman and because you're black. Those things never even out. Those are the things you have to work at overcoming. And I still believe that. And I still teach young people that. Don't ever believe that things are post-racial. They will never be.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though - and I'm glad you brought that up because one of the other points that re-occurs in the book - and I actually think - I think you're very honest about recounting this - are the confrontations that you sometimes have with political figures, particularly but not always, white political figures who say, actually you're the one injecting race into these situations.

CLYBURN: Yeah. Sure, I've lived with that.

MARTIN: But to the point of people who say that actually it's black folks who are race-obsessed now. What would you say to that?

CLYBURN: I would say that's a lot of poppycock. The fact of the matter is I know of no black person that feels empowered because he or she is black. I know a lot of black people who have decided to use their blackness as a strength, not because anything comes with it that you might call powerful, but to use it in order to overcome those things that may occur in your life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Congressman James Clyburn, Democrat from South Carolina. His new memoirs is called, "Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black."

Just let's go back to some of your early life for a minute. Your dad was a minister.

CLYBURN: Sure.

MARTIN: Your mom was a...

CLYBURN: Beautician.

MARTIN: ...Beautician. And you said that you struggled with a decision yourself. You were attracted to the ministry. But ultimately...

CLYBURN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...You said you actually - you still second-guessed your decision not to go into ministry. What made you go toward activism first and then politics?

CLYBURN: Well, I was so indoctrinated with the thought that you're called to the ministry. You're not born in it. You're supposed to be called. And I kept listening. (Laughing) And I never heard the call.

So I went home to tell my dad. I told him that I decided that I would not follow him into the ministry, that I was going to do something else. I thought my dad would be disappointed by that, and he may have been. But he said to me on that occasion, well, son, he said, I suspect the world would much rather see a sermon than to hear one. Now, that to me said it all. And so most of what I do is very faith-based. When I talk about legislation in the Congress, I think about, what will this impact be on the least among us?

MARTIN: One of the fruits of your activism was that you met your wife kind of a...

CLYBURN: Well, I mean...

MARTIN: You kind of met cute...

CLYBURN: Well...

MARTIN: ...For that era.

CLYBURN: We got married on June 24, 1961. The meeting took place on March 15, 1960. I was sitting in the jail waiting to be bailed out, and she came to bring food to those of us who had not eaten all day. And she brought this hamburger, and I reached for it - thought she was handing it to me. But she pulled it back, broke it in half, gave me half of it. She ate the other half. So I told her about it. I came very cheap, one half a hamburger. I was so grateful. Eighteen months later, we got married.

MARTIN: Well, there are some other interesting things about that - I wonder why it is but politics is very famously hard on marriages...

CLYBURN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...As we see...

CLYBURN: Often.

MARTIN: ...Too often. And I'm wondering what do you think the secret of the longevity of your union has been, particularly given that you - it has not been easy for you. One of the things I'd forgotten until I read your memoir is that you had had in fact three unsuccessful campaigns...

CLYBURN: Yep.

MARTIN: ...Before you were finally elected to Congress. And it is worth noting, you were already a father by then.

CLYBURN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You already had kids to support, and you were already...

CLYBURN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...At a time when a lot of people were kind of doing other things...

CLYBURN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Or getting out of politics. As you pointed out, you were just starting in Congress. And I just sort of wonder, what do you think the secret is of your staying together all these years when politics is so hard on other people?

CLYBURN: Well, I think, 1970 when I ran, I won the primary. And we had this big party that night. I mean, no black person had ever served in the South Carolina legislature, and so everybody was celebrating. That night when I got home, celebrating continued to the wee hours of the morning. My wife went to bed. The next morning, after - when I got up, I went into my bathroom and up on the mirror was a little stick-em. And written on that stick-em were these words, (reading) when you win, brag gently, when you lose, weep softly. My wife had written that and put it up on the mirror for me to read. I read it, and I let it stay there.

That following November, I was declared the winner in the general election at 10 o'clock in the evening. About 330, the doorbell rang. A TV reporter was at my door saying, you better get down to the courthouse. Something has happened. We went down there, and sure enough I was told that rather than being the 500-vote winner, I was a 500-vote loser.

I went back home that morning, and I walked into that bathroom. That little stick-em was still there. I wept softly. That has always stuck with me. My wife was always very, very practical, very realistic, very forgiving, and therefore, we have been able to stay married all these years. Those three things, I think, are the secrets of there - there is the secret.

MARTIN: Speaking of weeping softly, if you don't mind my mentioning this, I spoke to you on the day that Barack Obama was nominated for the presidency. You were very emotional...

CLYBURN: I was.

MARTIN: ...I don't know if you mind my mentioning that.

CLYBURN: No, I don't, and I remember that night that we talked. I had invited all my political supporters to this big event. It must have been 400 or 500 people in the room. And I looked back, and my three daughters - tears were streaming down their faces. I looked at my wife - tears streaming down her face. And I thought I was the big man in the crowd. And before I knew it, tears were flowing. They were tears of joy because, you know, you grow up believing in certain things. But the one thing I never believed was that I would live to see an African-American elected to president.

MARTIN: You did not?

CLYBURN: No, I never thought I would. Every time I think about that night, I still get choked-up.

MARTIN: Do you feel that he has fulfilled the hopes that you had for him?

CLYBURN: Well, serving in the Congress, one of the things you know is that some things a president cannot do. And the president cannot pass legislation. He can ask for it. He can proclaim it. But we have to pass legislation.

What I was not prepared for - and I don't think the president was prepared for - the significant animus that would be generated by his elections. And I don't care what anybody says about it. The fact of the matter is, so much of this is personal.

MARTIN: You mean personal because it's Barack Obama, personal because he's a black man or personal because he's the black man he is, which is a progressive liberal or whatever.

CLYBURN: Well, a lot of people say it's about the progressive liberalism. But that may be it to some people. But the fact of the matter is, nobody likes to go there. And I don't like to have to go there. But being the honest person that I am, I read my mail sometimes. And I get reports on the phone calls. And a lot of the reaction to me has got nothing to do with the position I may take. It's got to do with who I am and what I am. And I read the mail. And some of it I've posted up on my wall - I've framed to keep there because it goes back to what I said to my daughter.

Let me tell you a little bit about the end of that story. Thanksgiving I went to pick Mignon up from school. She called me and says they're closing the dormitories for Thanksgiving. I need to go home. On our way home, a car passed me and she said to me - she said dad, did you see that car that just passed us? I said yes. Did you see the bumper sticker on it? I said yes. The bumper sticker was George Rogers for Heisman. George Rogers was the African-American football player at the University of South Carolina who was a candidate for the Heisman, which he won. She says do you believe that man would put your bumper sticker on his car? I says probably not. But why do you ask? She said well, I didn't understand what you were saying to me when I left to go to school until the homecoming game. I says what happened at homecoming? She said that at homecoming we had a black homecoming queen. And when she was introduced at halftime she was booed. And then I noticed that from the section of the stands where the loudest boos came, that was the section of the stands that cheered the loudest when George Rogers was introduced at the beginning of the game. I said OK. And that told you what? That it's all right for us to entertain but they don't want us to represent them.

MARTIN: But you know you also tell this story in the book of how your car - when your car went off the road one day...

CLYBURN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...How this truck - a pick-up truck comes up with a full Confederate, you know, the Confederate flag thing in the back window and you're thinking, OK, here we go. And then they stop and pull you out and won't take any money. And they say no, no, we just wanted to help you, you know, and went on their way. And so, so...

CLYBURN: Well, if you remember from that story, it ended by me looking at them and saying just when I thought I had this flag thing all figured out.

MARTIN: Right. Right.

CLYBURN: And that's part of the contradictions that come with all of this. And that's why - one of the reasons I wrote this book - because I want young African-Americans to understand that a lot that people act out with may be misplaced. But a lot of it is their learned behavior from what they've been taught. These two young men that pulled us out of that swamp were construction workers from Georgia. But they had worked side-by-side in that cement plant there in Harleyville, South Carolina with enough black people to get beyond that for the moment. We see it on football fields, on basketball courts. They work together to get beyond that for the moment. At some point in time, a lot of them will internalize it and live it.

MARTIN: That was actually going to be my final question, which is why did you want to write this book? Particularly why now? What are you hoping that people will draw from it?

CLYBURN: I wrote this book with the tenth grade students I used to teach in mind. And I made sure that every time I finished a part of the book, I would go back through it. And I would say to myself would those students sitting in my tenth grade class understand this? Will they learn something from this? Will it do some good for them going forward? And if I could not answer each one of those questions in the affirmative, I went back and rewrote. So this book was written as a primer. Anybody thinking about politics, anybody wondering about what it's like to be in this business, this book would be a reference book for them. Anybody teaching the tenth grade class will be able to use this book as a reference.

MARTIN: That was Representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat. His new memoir is called "Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black." And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congressman Clyburn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CLYBURN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you have been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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