I was born in Oklahoma, which, though not strictly speaking a southern state, has a great deal in common with Congressman Jim Clyburn’s home state of South Carolina. Both are places where, regardless of class or color, folks will put themselves in harm’s way to help a stranger and where a conversation about football or barbecue is not really about a sport or a method of preparing meat; it’s about who you are. Yet beneath the cordial surface, social, political, and racial tensions rooted in events that happened a century and a half ago are ever present.
Two of my grandparents were sharecroppers, and my parents both grew up in families of thirteen children. But M. H. and Connie Woodard raised my brother, sister, and me in a pink house with a two-car garage in a grassy middle class neighborhood on the north side of Tulsa. My daddy drove a midnight-blue Lincoln with a white landau roof, and my mother had a charge account at Neimans. The north side was a thriving, upwardly mobile black community when I was a girl. I walked my first precinct with my mom when I was ten years old. Segregation may still have been a fact of life in Tulsa, but M. H. and Connie made sure it set no limits on their children. They sent me to Bishop Kelly High, a private integrated Catholic school, and I went on to college at BU in Boston in the early 1970s. I did not have to fight to become what Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer called a “first-class citizen,” and like most headstrong kids growing up in the era of rock and roll, I couldn’t fully appreciate how much the world I inherited had been changed by people like my parents, who lived and worked and made a comfortable, happy life for their children despite being surrounded by a hostile society that would have preferred to make us invisible. I felt like a first-class citizen my whole life because my parents would not have had it any other way.
Reading Jim Clyburn’s lucid, detailed, and fascinating autobiography, I was struck over and over again by how strangely familiar the stories of his formative years were to me. Strange because as a student leader, schoolteacher, and then staff member for South Carolina governor John C. West, Jim confronted overt political and personal racism far more directly than I did at a young age. His day-to-day life of professional trial and error and political awakening was also very different from mine. But throughout the book there is a sense of balance, pragmatism, and buttoned-down toughness that reminded me vividly of the men and women among whom I was raised on the north side of Tulsa. In following Jim’s career as a congressman, especially once he became House majority whip, I have been deeply moved by how truly “Representative” Jim Clyburn is of modern African Americans and of their parents, whom white people “politely” referred to as “Negroes”; and of their parents and grandparents, who endured being called “Colored”; and of their ancestors, who bore the terrors of slavery. Jim truly represents their collective aspirations, and he has the record, scars, and fighting spirit, to prove it. One has only to attend the annual Jim Clyburn Fish Fry in Columbia, South Carolina, to get a sense of the great respect he has earned from South Carolinians of every color and political persuasion.
As described in these pages, Jim’s parents, Reverend Enos Lloyd Clyburn and Almeta Dizzley Clyburn, demonstrated first-class citizenship decades before it was actually granted to them. They were people of dignity, pragmatism, and staunch determination, who were doing foundational civil rights work before most Americans were aware of something called the civil rights movement. For me the early chapters brought back almost tactile memories of teachers, ministers, deacons, and small=business owners who set examples that I absorbed unconsciously, through my skin. When Jim and I first met, I recognized the formative combination of balance and strength, which he so eloquently details here. I came of age believing I should join with those who storm the ramparts of injustice. Jim has taught me that it’s just as important to know what, and especially who, is behind those walls and how one might start a conversation once inside. Beginning with a truly insider account of the political firefight over the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary, wherein Jim and President Bill Clinton exchanged famously opposing views, this book reveals a straightforward, unpretentious, deeply patriotic, and principled American who continues to represent his constituents with great skill and integrity.