Jim Clyburn on His Quest For Black Political Power in U.S.

OClyburn, a Representative from South Carolina took the outdoor stage for his after-party on a humid night in Columbia. Clyburn—the 82-year-old House Democratic whip, maker of Presidents, and highest-ranking Black man in Congress—has a message of hope for dark times. “In spite of all its faults, there ain’t a better country to be living in,” he says in his imposing baritone. “And you and I will have to do our jobs out here at the polls to save this country from itself.”

Of the hundreds in attendance this June evening at the EdVenture Children’s Museum, some have come from the fundraising dinner down the street for the South Carolina Democratic Party, where the first Black woman Vice President was the keynote speaker. Many others haven’t. Clyburn throws this free bash so those who can’t afford to attend a fundraiser have a way to participate. Wearing a navy suit and holding a mixed drink, he’s joined on the patio by Congresswoman Shontel Brown of Ohio, who credits Clyburn’s endorsement for her victory in a special election last year, coming from 35 points behind to defeat a Bernie Sanders–backed progressive.

“It’s no coincidence that his initials are J.C.—you can reference the story of Lazarus by another J.C. in the Bible,” Brown tells me. “When you think about folks like myself and Joe Biden, who looked like they didn’t have a chance to win, our J.C., Jim Clyburn, gave us his stamp of approval and ­resurrected what had been perceived by many as an impossible victory.”

Clyburn was an important force behind Barack Obama’s rise to power, as seen at his 2007 fish fry for the Democratic nomination.

Jim Clyburn’s Friends

Clyburn is in his element, surrounded by the vast ­political network he’s nurtured. Brown got her start in a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) training program Clyburn helped create; her boyfriend is Clyburn’s political adviser Antjuan Seawright. The entire afterparty—which will turn into a raging dance-off before the night ends—is packed with people Clyburn has prodded into politics: local party officials, members of district executive boards, city council members from across the state, county auditors and coroners. “I thought politics was all deceitfulness and lying, and I didn’t want any part of it,” Anthony Thompson Jr., a thin Columbian in a salmon-pink suit, tells me. “He made me see that you have to be part of the system to make change.” After training in one of Clyburn’s mentorship programs, Thompson now serves as second vice chair of the local party and started its first disability caucus.

Clyburn’s influence in Democratic politics is as far-reaching as it is unsung. Today, he’s widely credited with swinging the 2020 presidential primary to Biden, rescuing the flailing campaign with a well-timed endorsement that buoyed him to a 30-point victory in South Carolina­—and extracting a promise to name the first Black woman to the ­Supreme Court. That wasn’t even the first time Clyburn helped make a ­President: he was instrumental to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, and before that played a key role in putting South Carolina near the top of the primary calendar in the first place. He is a friend of Clyburn and holds top office in both the Administration, as well as in his party. Jaime Harrison of Democratic National Committee, the chairman of which Clyburn was the pusher for the position, was 29 at the time when Clyburn named him the first Black executive director in the House Democratic caucus. Harrison says that a significant percentage of Black Americans who are active in politics can trace their positions back to Clyburn.

A few months ago, when numerous congressional Democrats were clamoring to chair the high-profile select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot, it was Clyburn who urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to name his best friend, Congressman Bennie Thompson—­native of Bolton, Miss., graduate of historically Black Tougaloo College—its ­chairman. Clyburn saw a familiar pattern during the whispering. “A lot of people wanted to be chairman,” Clyburn tells me. “And quite frankly, nobody will admit to this, but it’s the same thing I had when I ran for whip. A Black guy from Mississippi, ain’t from an Ivy League School—they won’t say it, but they think it: ‘He can’t chair this.’” Pelosi ignored the whispers, and Thompson has been widely praised for his coolheaded handling of the committee’s hearings, proving what Clyburn knew all along: “Bennie is perfect for this,” Clyburn says. “He’s unflappable, and he ain’t searching for the limelight. He’s just doing his thing.”

Clyburn’s friends Cedric Richmond, right, and Bennie Thompson, second from right, serve in key positions

The Office of Majoritywhip James E. Clyburn

The episode bore all the hallmarks of Clyburn’s style. As usual, he was quick to suspect a Black person wasn’t getting his due, and quick to do something about it. Like usual, he worked with others to achieve the best outcome for himself and his party. He did not apply for public credit, and the results were as impressive as ever. From poverty relief to funding for historically Black colleges to rural broadband, he’s the source of many significant policy achievements, but he is more often found behind the scenes than on the dais.

This quality as much as anything has put him at odds with today’s left. To a rising generation of activists, Clyburn’s penchant for incrementalism and backroom dealing represents complicity with an intolerable status quo at a moment when urgency is required. ­Campaigning for Brown and the conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar against more liberal candidates, he’s been called a corporate sellout and worse, accused of doing the bidding of his donors in defense contracting and the pharmaceutical industry. In May, at Charleston’s campaign event, he was confronted by his far-left opponent about reparations. “We need those who are willing to fight fervently for Black people that are not so committed to the establishment,” says Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives. “Clyburn was very instrumental in influencing people’s decision to vote for Biden. When we think back, many people wonder, “Ah, it was the best decision.” How has that manifested in my life?”

Clyburn’s thoughts about the current and future trajectory of Black political power are discussed in one of our interviews. Fourteen years ago, the election of the first Black President vindicated his abiding belief in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, but today he is less sanguine. Clyburn, over the six decades of his career as a politician, has witnessed many positive changes, starting with the sit-ins in 1960 and ending up at the top of Congress. However, the tide seems to have turned these days. The Black Lives Matter movement drove unprecedented millions into the streets but did not succeed in spurring Congress to pass police ­reform or voting-rights legislation. White supremacy is on the rise and racial dogs whistling seems in ascendency. Ten Blacks were shot to death at Buffalo’s supermarket by a white gunman, who claimed that he targeted their race. A school district in Pennsylvania, Clyburn notes, recently banned children’s books on King and Rosa Parks. “If that ain’t Hitlerism, tell me what is,” Clyburn says. “That’s what this country is coming to.”

Does it make sense to be able to reach the levers and power at the end of the day? Or is it a fool’s game to try to win by the rules of a system designed to oppress? “Progress in this country has never moved on a linear plane,” Clyburn says. “It goes forward for a while. And then it goes backward for a while.”

Tomorrow morningClyburn sits down in the back room of the convention hall where the party’s annual meeting is being held. Clyburn eats a sugar cookie, and then pours a glass of Diet Coke into his plastic cup. Clyburn grew up in a civil rights movement that stressed the tension between inside and outside power. He was too aggressive in his youth, according to his father. But today, at a ­crucial moment for racial justice in America, Clyburn frets that the balance is out of whack—that too many seem content to call attention to problems without getting into the trenches to fix them.

Clyburn (second from left) with Martin Luther King Jr. during a rally in Charleston, 1967

The Office of Majoritywhip James E. Clyburn

“You know, this party of ours is catching so much flak, because there’s this contest: How many people get the most hits on social media? How many people get the biggest headline?” he says. “One guy is running against me right now in the primary, saying I’m not progressive enough. Please show me one fact about my past. All the unions give me A ratings. NAACP rates me as A. What makes me not progressive? I’m not progressive to them because I don’t call people names. Because you ain’t gonna see me on TV yelling at somebody, trying to get a headline. My time is spent trying to find the best way to keep this majority of people happy and to get things done. They’re having a contest on who can yell the loudest.”

Clyburn was born 1940 in Sumter in South Carolina, a racially segregated town of 10,000. His father was a minister of the fundamentalist faith, and his mother was a beauty therapist and entrepreneur. Their three sons were encouraged to strive for greater goals and fought against Jim Crow by both of them. Clyburn, a South Carolina State College student and leader of the Congress on Racial Equality in 1960, led 1,000 students on a march through Orangeburg demanding desegregation. Officers commanded the quiet, orderly marchers to stop “disturbing the peace,” but said nothing to the howling white mob pursuing them. Clyburn, who was being pursued by the mob of white protesters, was shoved into a car and turned on police. Clyburn had to fight back with all of his might to remain peaceful as 388 marchers were taken away.

Some were kept in outdoor stockades, dressed in wet clothing in cold weather and carrying cigarette lighters. Clyburn, as he waited for his bond posting to take place at the courthouse, was offered a hamburger by a tiny coed. The couple were finally married fifteen months later. He was 15 months later married to Emily Clyburn.

Clyburn’s instinct was to join the system. Clyburn was a racially neutral white Democrat who helped John West secure the Black vote for his gubernatorial race against a Republican backed segregationist Senator Strom. After he won, West appointed Clyburn to chair South Carolina’s newly created Human Affairs Commission, an agency charged with mediating racial disputes in the wake of desegregation and the Civil Rights Act. Clyburn, who was 30 years old, became the first Black person to be elected to the state cabinet. He managed a large staff of white older people.

Clyburn and President Bill Clinton on Air Force One, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senator Fritz Hollings 1996

The Office of Majoritywhip James E. Clyburn

Clyburn found himself at the centre of an ongoing firestorm. He was simultaneously being attacked by Black activists for believing he was too compromiseable and white conservatives who wanted to discredit and abolish the commission. Clyburn authorized an autopsy to confirm that the victim was indeed not murdered. The exhumation revealed that the man was actually castrated. Clyburn then condemned the hate-mongering activists as causing division in the community. Clyburn, despite the fact that they were not expelled, defended the punishment of Citadel military academy white cadets who terrorized Black classmates by dressing them in white, and then waking them in the middle night with a paper cross. “I not only wanted to advance the interests of Black people in the state, but I wanted also to be ­Exhibit A in the case for including more African American executives in state government,” Clyburn wrote in his 2014 memoir, Blessed Experiences – Genuinely Southern, ProudlyBlack. When he left the post after 18 years, he was under no illusion he had solved the problem, but felt that “we had created an imperfect reality where there had previously been only an idealistic dream.”

The work was controversial—and dangerous. Clyburn, who began to advocate for the removal the Confederate flag of war that flies over the state capital in the 1980s was placed under protection by police for five years for threats. Clyburn was able to broker an agreement between the NAACP (Republican state legislature) to move the flag to a more prominent location on Capitol grounds. However, at the very last minute the NAACP pulled out of the agreement and declared it unacceptable. In retaliation, the legislature placed the flag in a more prominent spot. The activists found themselves worse off because they refused to compromise. Clyburn, the NAACP and others continued their barbaric exchanges for years. The flag was removed by the legislature in 2015 after nine black parishioners were shot to death at Charleston’s Black Church by a young white supremacist.

Learn More Jim Clyburn: The Confederate Battle Flag Must Be Taken Down.

In 1992, having already run for state and local office unsuccessfully three times, Clyburn decided to seek the state’s newly created majority-Black congressional seat. He defeated four well-qualified Black candidates and became the first African American South Carolina representative in almost a century. The first bill he authored created a new federal courthouse named after his ­childhood hero and mentor, the civil rights attorney and judge Matthew J. Perry, over the objections of Clyburn’s new congressional colleague Thurmond, who wanted it named after himself. Clyburn leveraged relationships with Republicans in order to overcome Thurmond and used his vote on other topics as a bargaining chip for the fiscally conservative Clinton White House’s funding of the project. On another occasion, he managed to secure a coveted slot on the Appropriations Committee—then voluntarily gave it up in exchange for votes on other priorities.

Clyburn was able to count on many favors as a result. Clyburn won with unanimous support from the CBC which he was chairing. He became the second Black majority whip ever in history, and he won it by a landslide. One white colleague, he wrote, “gave an emphatic yes when I asked for his vote, but expressed some reticence about putting a whip in a Black man’s hand.”

Just 175 out of more than 12,000 Americans that have served in Congress to date are Black. Clyburn’s ascension to congressional leadership paved the way for other Southern Blacks, Bennie Thompson tells me. “If you were from the South, they assumed that, because you spoke a little slower, that had something to do with your brain,” Thompson says. “We came from the back of the bus to the front of the bus with Jim Clyburn in the driver’s seat.”

Clyburn and his family were sworn into the House Majority whip position by Nancy Pelosi on July 7, 2007.

The Office of Majoritywhip James E. Clyburn

Obama was the former President once described Clyburn as “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.” His persona is a curious mix of gravitas and levity, with little in between; with his booming voice and impish smile, he always seems to be simultaneously half-joking and deadly serious. In Washington, he dines most nights at the private National Democratic Club with Thompson; Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge, a former Congresswoman whom Clyburn lobbied Biden to put in the Cabinet; and Cedric Richmond, a former Congressman and Clyburn protégé who recently departed a top Administration position. Richmond tells that these dinners have helped to make important decisions about the 2020 campaign, as well the Biden White House. “We fix problems, we cause problems—we do a little bit of everything,” he says.

Clyburn, who has been aggressively cashing in political capital that he gained by leading Biden’s victory, often irked the White House. Biden fulfilled his promise to Clyburn this year to appoint Black women as Supreme Court judges when there was a vacant seat. Michelle Childs was Clyburn’s South Carolina Judge. But Biden chose Ketanji Jackson and named Childs the D.C.’s most prestigious judge. Circuit Court instead. Clyburn had originally asked Biden to name Fudge Secretary of Agriculture to the Cabinet, rather than HUD. Fudge had publicly denigrated this position as stereotypically Black.

“I was flat out pushing her for Ag,” Clyburn tells me—a slot in which the Ohioan would have been positioned to address the rural poverty that affects so many of his constituents. Clyburn claims Biden phoned him in the middle of the night, asking him to stop. President Obama wanted Tom Vilsack to be reappointed as Agriculture Secretary under Obama. Clyburn was bitter about Vilsack’s hasty dismissal of Shirley Sherrod in 2010, based upon a deceptively edited clip. (Clyburn had served in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with Sherrod’s husband Charles Sherrod.) Vilsack eventually apologized for his public criticism of Obama’s decision. Clyburn said that Biden requested him to speak with Vilsack last year to see if they could reach an agreement. “And so I did agree to talk with him,” Clyburn recalls. “And then I relented.”

“Jim is there to do the work. He is a person that would rather get things done than worry about who gets the credit,” Fudge tells me. “What we have now is so many people who believe that the whole movement to fight for justice started with them. They need to realize that people like Jim Clyburn have been on the battlefield for a long time.”

Clyburn (left) and John Lewis (left), were civil rights advocates before they were elected to Congress.

Allison Shelley—Getty Images

Clyburn is “instrumental” to the Democratic caucus, says Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in ways that are often not publicly apparent. While his primary job is to count votes and negotiate between parties, Clyburn also advocates for Black priorities at leadership meetings. Last year, it was Clyburn who brokered a delicate agreement between moderate Democrats and the CBC to ensure that Biden’s infrastructure and spending bills could both pass after prolonged infighting, according to Clyburn and two others who were in the room. He told me that he decided not to participate in the press conference announcing his deal because he thought Joyce Beatty who is currently the chair of the CBC needed more accolades.

Learn More Nancy Pelosi Doesn’t Care What You Think of Her. And She Isn’t Going Anywhere.

“Some of these fights are long ones, and you have to recognize that you may not have immediate success, but you have to have constant focus,” Pelosi tells me. “Clyburn is a person like that—though he prefers immediate success.”

Clyburn’s tenure his 27th annual World Famous Fish Fry in June 2019, nearly the entire Democratic presidential field schlepped to Columbia to make their pitch to the early primary state’s predominantly Black electorate. The visit doubled as a chance to kiss Clyburn’s ring, even though most suspected his old friend Biden had the inside track to his endorsement. The 21 candidates spoke to a packed crowd from an outdoor platform. Over 4,000 pounds were consumed.

This year, after two years of COVID-19 cancellations, Clyburn decided against holding the fish fry in its full glory, replacing it with a number of smaller events, such as today’s low-country boil in Columbia’s historically Black Greenview neighborhood, where he has long made his home. Clyburn may be retiring, some people thought. He tells me he is, but won’t say when, and plans to serve the two-year term for which he’s currently running, even if Democrats lose the House.

The contrast with the 2019 festival is stark: a few dozen locals sitting in folding chairs in a half-empty community-­center gymnasium, eating the mix of shrimp, corn, and potatoes from a few steam trays at the side of the room. Although media outlets around the globe covered the event, only a handful of local journalists were there. Clyburn, who was addressing questions while he made his way into the gym to answer them all, gave an unplanned lecture on political communication. Democrats’ biggest challenge, he opines, is “spending a little more time understanding people’s habits, people’s aspirations, understanding how to talk to people on their own terms.” The party, in other words, sounds out of touch with regular people. Clyburn has been harshly critical of the “defund the police” slogan embraced by some on the left, comparing its politically damaging resonance to the “burn, baby, burn” chant of the 1960s.

Clyburn and Angela with their daughters Jennifer, right at the low-country boil of Columbia

Mike Belleme for TIME

Many liberals are feeling let down today by congressional Democrats. They claim that they offer little more than thoughts and prayers, as mass shootings multiply, Roe-v. Wade gets overturned, the climate burns, and Roe v. Wade goes out of fashion. Clyburn’s primary opponent, a 37-year-old teacher named Gregg “Marcel” Dixon from rural Ridgeland, tells me Black Americans are worse off today than they were during the civil rights movement because leaders like Clyburn have sold them out. “How much time are Black people supposed to wait for progress?” Dixon says. Dixon won a majority of votes in June’s primary on the platform of huge reparations to allow African Americans the opportunity to create institutions independent from white society.

Inside the gym, Clyburn tells the crowd he’s tired of hearing that Democrats haven’t done anything. “We need to talk more about our accomplishments,” he says, brandishing a flier that lists some of the projects he’s ­gotten funded: money for Black colleges and community health facilities, hospital upgrades and veterans centers, rural broadband. Lake Marion Regional Water Agency cost $20 million. It brought potable water in large portions of his area for the first-time. Heritage-­preservation corridors and national parks. Government hiring is covered by affirmative-action clauses. His “10-20-30” funding formula, which specifies that 10% of federal spending be reserved for areas where at least 20% of the population has been below the poverty line for 30 years or more. The formula now applies to 15 appropriations accounts—little provisions tucked into bigger bills that can have a major impact. He prefers headlines and headway.

This is the change Clyburn practices and preaches, the unsexy work of improving people’s lives, little by little, and keeping at it through setbacks. There are many problems that have been accumulated over centuries and cannot be solved by one piece of legislation or revolution. Clyburn has never believed that progress is guaranteed, but he’s all too familiar with the persistent illusion. “I’ve heard it said so often: ‘Well, all we have to do is have a few funerals,’” he tells me. “‘The younger white people think differently.’ No, they don’t. No, they don’t.”

In 1985, Clyburn traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to speak at a conference also featuring Clarence Thomas, then President Reagan’s chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the federal agency with jurisdiction over state commissions like the one Clyburn headed. Clyburn came to support affirmative action. Thomas was opposed. He did not try to provoke a fight, but tailored his speech to Thomas’ liking, using Lincoln and their Southern roots. A more aggressive speech would have delighted the national media in attendance—but might have alienated an important federal agency whose help Clyburn was likely to need in the future.

Clyburn often thinks about the difference in worldviews that Thomas and himself have. He tells me this in his D.C. Office. Thomas recounts in interviews and his memoir how he was sternly disciplined by his grandfather for not allowing him to see a white person’s face. “Every time I think about him, I think about how different it is for young people whose parents had, for whatever reason, a lack of vision for the future,” Clyburn says. “So every time I see him or read his opinions, I think, ‘That’s the difference between us. His indoctrination was to be less than.’”

Clyburn’s education was the opposite. His father once slapped him for cowering from an adult’s handshake and told him to always look people in the eye. The Rev. Enos Clyburn told his congregation, “No matter how long you’ve been down, getting up must always be on your mind,” the Congressman recalled in his memoir.

His father, Clyburn wrote, “viewed pessimism as a human weakness with no place in his faith.” It can be hard to believe in progress at a time like this. But to Jim Clyburn, there is no other way.—With ­reporting by ­Simmone Shah/­New York

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