My life doesn’t lend itself to classification or categorization. As a longtime congressman from one of America’s most impoverished districts, I fashioned a career out of being prepared and staying focused. I used my political talents to develop relationships and was always willing to steer a course away from predictable channels. The eldest son of a fundamentalist minister, I joined forces with a white Catholic priest to defend the rights of underpaid black workers during a strike against the City of Charleston and the Medical College of South Carolina (now MUSC) in Charleston. As a community organizer, I found ways for hundreds of children from inner-city and seasonal farm workers’ families to gain scholarships to colleges and universities throughout the country.
I played the clarinet in my high school marching band and orchestra and the alto saxophone in the dance band. I made only one fielding error in my three years as second baseman on my high school baseball team, but I was too weak with the bat and too slow running the bases to get beyond one year of college baseball. I was a lightweight, second-string linebacker on my high school football team, but my basketball skills never advanced beyond junior varsity. I played a leading role in my high school senior class play and when I entered college, I joined the dance troupe, the debating society, and the theater group, where
I played leading roles in Our Town, An Inspector Calls, and The Rainmaker. I became a risk taker, organizing sit-ins and protest marches in my college town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the state capital of Columbia. I acquired enough jail time to qualify as a veteran of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and recently celebrated fifty-year reunions in Orangeburg and Columbia with my fellow jailbirds.
I worked with—and was greatly influenced by—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. I developed close working relationships with NAACP branches, Urban League affiliates, various voting rights groups, and civil rights activists in the black and brown communities.
I incurred the wrath of the leadership of the NAACP’s state conference of branches over my role in fashioning a compromise to remove the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the South Carolina capitol building. But at one time or another, I have keynoted Freedom Dinners for most of the NAACP local branches in South Carolina and several branches across the country.
In 1971 I broke the color barrier and became the first black executive staffer to a South Carolina governor and convinced that governor, John Carl West, to create the State Housing Finance and Development Authority, which continues in existence today.
I helped pass a state-level civil rights bill and later became the enforcing agency’s commissioner, serving four governors, two Democrats and two Republicans. I successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a Bill of Rights for Handicapped Citizens and the South Carolina Fair Housing Law, both considered groundbreaking legislation for a southern state.
I have defied stereotypes throughout my life and have made destroying broadly held myths about black people my highest priority. Growing up under the discipline of a proud black minister and a genuinely southern businesswoman, I developed enough poise and popularity to be elected president of my NAACP Youth Council before my thirteenth birthday—and the first black congressman from South Carolina in nearly a century.
I decided against following my father into the ministry and am still second guessing my decision. I lost three elections—one at the local level and two statewide—before getting elected to Congress in 1992, at an age when many were ending rather than beginning their political careers. I have held leadership positions in the House of Representatives: president of my freshman class for the second session of the One Hundred Third Congress (1994), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (1999–2001), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus for three years, and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus for one year. I served four years as majority whip, (2007–10) and have been assistant Democratic leader since 2011.
I used my political clout in Congress to pump millions of dollars into South Carolina and my district, and I used my friendships with congressional moderates and conservatives to retain Affirmative Action in federal grant programs, to lessen sentencing disparities, and to gain passage of legislation to designate a black heritage corridor along the southeastern coast of the United States from Florida through Georgia and South Carolina to North Carolina.
I worked closely with Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and occasionally fought with Senator Strom Thurmond of my home state, but I often worked with him and with Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings to improve the quality of life for South Carolinians. One of the highlights of my career occurred when the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) named the research facilities adjacent to the Hollings Cancer Center and the Strom Thurmond Biomedical Research Center, the James E. Clyburn Research Center.
I have been an outspoken supporter of the Obama administration, but my advocacy of some not-so-popular aspects of health-care reform, educational opportunities for low-income families, and the economic needs of persistently poor communities sometimes make me a vocal critic of some of his administration’s actions and policies. I have been awarded thirty-three honorary degrees by thirty-two colleges and universities. Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, presented me his 2010 Annual President’s Award, and I have received scores of awards and citations from various groups and organizations—many of them named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Septima Clark, and other notable Americans.
My story is one of national leadership and local advocacy. It is the story of a black youngster who grew up in the Jim Crow South, fought most of his adult life to lower barriers of discrimination, and emerged at the national level as a political pragmatist and consensus builder.
When I decided to write this memoir, I sought the help of my longtime friend and confidant Philip G. Grose Jr. Phil was speechwriter for Governors Robert E. McNair and John C. West and wrote books on both of them. Phil’s untimely death, about two-thirds of the way through my project, gave me great pause in more ways than one. We spent many hours discussing our mutual backgrounds, common heritage,
and different cultures. He was a tremendous help with style and perspective, but from the very beginning, I reserved unto myself all substance and content. I miss him dearly.
I have always been frustrated by those who explain their questionable expressions and actions toward me and those who look like me, by proclaiming themselves to be southerners, moderates or conservatives. Phil and I shared a low tolerance for such behavior, and for years I told him that if I ever wrote the memoir he always promised to help me with, it would be titled, “I, Too, Am a Southerner.” But long before I became a son of the South, I was an offspring of two dyedin-the-wool, proudly conservative southerners, Almeta Dizzley and Enos Lloyd Clyburn, who treated me and my brothers, and people who looked like us, with great love and affection.
My mother spent many long hours in her beauty shop, and was a generous contributor to and supporter of the NAACP, as well as many other community causes and political activities. My dad always ate his last meal of the week around 6:00 p.m. on Fridays, to begin preparation for his Sunday sermons and services. He always spent most of his Saturdays fasting, reading, and humming his favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”
One day while President Obama and I were enjoying a round of golf, he asked about my parents as we discussed this project. When I told him the working title and why I had chosen it, he broke into his Al Green imitation and started singing one of the hymn’s verses. I did not share with the president a little factoid that I feel certain my dad never knew. My dad’s mother and the composer of the music to that hymn shared the same, not-so-common given name, Phoebe. In that hymn’s refrain are the words, “this is my story, this is my song.”