Rep. James Clyburn Finds Good Company on the Vineyard

By: Alex Elvin

A number of high-profile politicians converged on Oak Bluffs on Friday for a low-key but spirited book signing and talk by Cong. James Clyburn of South Carolina. It concluded a heavy week of book signings — by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Georgia Cong. John Lewis and others.

At least 40 people from around the country attended the event at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9261 on Friday evening. Among them were Cong. Barbara Lee of California, Cong. Gregory Meeks of New York and Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit.

Mr. Clyburn’s memoir, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, was released in May. It offers an inside look at the congressman’s history in the civil rights movement and in politics. Mr. Clyburn played an important role in helping to elect President Obama in 2008, by gathering support among the Democratic super delegates (the party officials who had not yet pledged their support for either candidate) in the primaries.

The book signing was among many events this summer with connections to African American history and culture. On Thursday Ms. Lee joined a panel discussion on Oak Bluffs and its role in a new exhibit, the Power of Place, which will open at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture when the museum opens in 2016. The event was sponsored by Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. On Friday, a panel of scholars and journalists hosted by the Hutchins Center for African and African American research at Harvard University discussed perceptions of race in regard to the presidency of Barack Obama, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown.

All proceeds from the sale of Blessed Experiences will go to the James E. Clyburn Scholarship and Research Foundation, which this year gave out about $400,000 in scholarship aid to 101 children, including three who were homeless.

Wearing a short-sleeved navy blazer, Mr. Clyburn greeted friends and colleagues at a small table in the VFW hall, while government officials and professionals, and Island visitors mingled and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres prepared by VFW chef Deon Thomas.

Mr. Clyburn said that Mr. Thomas’s good reputation among Islanders, and the chance to support the country’s men and women in uniform were why he had chosen to hold the event at the VFW.

The congressman is no stranger to the Vineyard. “I’ve been coming up here every year for a long time,” he said between book signings. In the past, he was the regular guest speaker at annual fundraisers hosted by Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the former congresswoman from Ohio, at the seasonal home of actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

“There are people that I have been interacting with for a long, long time that frequent this Island, and it has allowed me to come up and interact with them in a much more relaxed setting when we aren’t being distracted by the hustle and bustle of our work,” he said.

He planned to speak at a fundraiser hosted by Ms. Lee on Saturday in Edgartown, but not before playing a couple of rounds of golf and making a television appearance. (He and President Obama played golf together in 2010 during the first family’s vacation on the Island.)

Louis Elisa, head of the Seaport Advisory Council in Boston, recognized many of the guests in the VFW hall, which by 7 p.m. was bustling with conversation. Among them were Charles Ogletree Jr, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard, and several Boston residents.

Mr. Elisa said that many of the guests on Friday visit the Island every year for its summer programming. “There is always something going on,” he said.

Dennis Archer, mayor of Detroit from 1993 to 2001, used to visit the Island every year, but this was his first time back in a while. He was impressed by this summer’s programming related to African American history and culture on the Island. “I’ve been astonished by what I’ve seen,” he said.

On Friday, people were still talking about events earlier in the week, including the Smithsonian panel and a public conversation last Tuesday between early civil rights leaders C.T. Vivian and Congressman Lewis. Mr. Lewis signed copies of his graphic novel, March, at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Sunday.

For Walter Lowe, a summer resident who lives the rest of the year in New Jersey and Barbados, this was his third book signing of the week. Former Secretary Clinton signed copies of her book Hard Choices at Bunch of Grapes on Wednesday, and local authors Skip Finley and Kathleen McGhee-Anderson signed copies of their novel, Martha’s Vineyard Love Story, at Cousen Rose Gallery on Saturday.

“I hope I get a chance to read all the books I just purchased,” Mr. Lowe said. “It will be good reading for the rest of the summer.”
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