NPR logo Rep. Jim Clyburn Rejects Town-Hall, Civil-Rights Comparisons

Rep. Jim Clyburn Rejects Town-Hall, Civil-Rights Comparisons

Rep. Jim Clyburn, third from the top in the House of Representative's leadership, talked with host Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More program about the noisy confrontations his colleagues have experienced at town hall meetings with constituents when the issue of overhauling health care has arisen.

Rep. Jim Clyburn. Alexis C. Glenn/Getty Images hide caption

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Alexis C. Glenn/Getty Images

Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and African American, said his own town halls have been civil. And he rejected comparisons conservatives have made between their tactics and those used by Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s.

A snippet of their conversation:

MICHEL: You're a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. And some of the people who are opposing the health-care plans that are now being debated in the Congress say they're just following the playbook of that era. They're saying that was confronting people in power, Civil Rights activists sometimes disrupted public meetings to call attention to their cause. Do you see their point? Do you think it's the same thing or do you think it's different?

CLYBURN: You know, it's kind of interesting. There were some disruptions. i remember being on the scene of the "burn, baby burn," the Stokely Carmichael era.

But there was always the practice of turning the other cheek. It was drilled in us to turn the other cheek. it was drilled in us to be respectful of other people. We campaigned and we politicked and we protested, we did all of those things.

But we never, ever attempted to talk over people, attempted to threaten people. We never hung anybody in effigy. We were respectful of the process. We just decided to challenge the laws, not to trample on the rights of others.

MICHEL: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been quoted as saying some of these protests are un-American. do you think that's fair?

CLYBURN: Look, if anybody's getting up with the face of Barack Obama drawn to look like Hitler, if anybody's waving a swastika , would you call that American. I don't think so.

MICHEL: Well some say it's just free speech, it's political speech and therefore it is American.

CLYBURN: Well, nah, free speech is as one Supreme Court justice, (said) would not give you the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. So no matter how free you may be of speech, you don't have unfettered speech.

So i think what this is, this has gone beyond the notion of free speech it's gone into those areas where you are in fact trampling the rights of others.

MICHEL: Is the issue for you some of these people are making it impossible for others to be heard or is the issue that the tenor has gone into hostile and rude?

CLYBURN: Well, Ii think it's hostile and rude, no question about that. But remember, we started having some of this during the presidential campaign last fall where people were very very hostile in some of these McCain rallies. And they were saying things about Barack Obama which were absolutely not true.