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Blessed Experiences

Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black

James E. Clyburn

Publication Year: 2014

From his humble beginnings in Sumter, South Carolina, to his prominence on the Washington, D.C., political scene as the third highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, U.S. Congressman James E. Clyburn has led an extraordinary life. In Blessed Experiences, Clyburn tells in his own inspirational words how an African American boy from the Jim Crow–era South was able to beat the odds to achieve great success and become, as President Barack Obama describes him, "one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens." Born in 1940 to a civic-minded beautician and a fundamentalist minister, Clyburn began his ascent to leadership at the age of twelve, when he was elected president of his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) youth chapter. He broke barriers through peaceful protests and steadfast beliefs in equality and justice. Of his success Clyburn says he was "blessed with nurturing parents, a supportive family, and loyal friends." But, he added, "my life was not just about knocking down doors and lowering barriers. I spent some time marching in the streets and occupying the inside of South Carolina jails." As a civil rights leader at South Carolina State College, as human affairs commissioner under John C. West and three subsequent governors, and as South Carolina's first African American congressman since 1897, Clyburn has established a long and impressive record of public leadership and advocacy for human rights, education, historic preservation, and economic development. Clyburn was elected to Congress in 1992. Serving as copresident of his freshman class, he rose quickly through the ranks and was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1999 and House Democratic Caucus vice chair in 2002. Three years later he was unanimously elected chair of the Democratic Caucus. When Democrats regained the House majority in 2006, Clyburn was elected House majority whip. Now as assistant Democratic leader in the 112th Congress, Clyburn, a self-described independent, prides himself on working to overcome barriers and destroy myths without becoming too predictable. "I have worked across party lines to further legislative causes, and on occasion publicly differed with some of my allies in the civil rights community," says Clyburn. "My experiences have not always been pleasant, but I have considered all of them blessings."

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

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...

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pp. xiii-xvi

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...


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pp. xvii-xx

Part One: Blessed by Experiences

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1. Conversations with a Former President

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pp. 3-11

My Blackberry vibrated, and I looked at my watch. It was 2:15 a.m. on the morning of January 27, 2008. I answered, and after several intermediate conversations, this powerful voice came on the other end: “If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one.” I needed no help identifying that voice. It was Bill Clinton, the former president...

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2. Courting the Superdelegates

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pp. 12-18

That left the only other apparent course to pursue: courting the uncommitted, or “superdelegates.” I knew something about the origins of that convention species. You might say I was in on its creation. It was part of the spillover from the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention, at which the youthful antiwar forces had clashed with party...

Part Two: A Blessed Beginning

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3. Inherited Values

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pp. 21-31

My parents belonged to that generation on whose shoulders the civil rights movement was built. They were the people who endured the oppression and deprivation that came along with life in the Jim Crow South, but who fought back in ways often overlooked by later generations. While black Carolinians by the tens of thousands...

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4. A World without Blinders

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pp. 32-44

My two brothers and I grew up without racial blinders and without the conditional view of the world that so often characterized black families of the Jim Crow era. Our parents placed no limits on our ambitions. This “no-limits” concept was something we learned instinctively, but it was also something that we came to realize was not all...

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5. The Young Clyburns

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pp. 45-58

My brothers and I are close and always have been. I’m not sure I can explain it in any rational way. We’re three distinctly different types and personalities, and we’ve led three separate and independent lives. But every year, during that week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, our families gather at Hilton Head Island, South...

Part Three: Finding My Way

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6. Into the Streets

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pp. 61-70

To the outsider’s eye, my hometown of Sumter would have appeared to be just another sleepy southern community during my childhood. At that time its population was around 10,000–12,000 people—about half white and half black. Most of Sumter’s jobs came from a low-paying furniture-manufacturing plant...

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7. Back to the Basics

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pp. 71-78

There was something impersonal about the way the public perceived the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Aside from a few high-profile leaders, demonstrations were reported in terms of masses of humanity surging against the walls of those defending the status quo. Protestors came across as being some sort of faceless force recruited...

Part Four: The Charleston Shuffle

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8. Two Steps to the West

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pp. 81-87

May 27, 1961, kicked in a phase of my life that is probably best described by that popular line dance that seems to get everybody up and on the dance floor. No, not the electric slide. The steps to that one are rather straightforward and do not offer as many opportunities for missteps as the one I have in mind: the Charleston shuffle...

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9. Two Steps to the East

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pp. 88-100

Charleston, South Carolina, had not been on my radar up to that point in my life. Pure fate took me in that direction. The event that created the job opening for me in Charleston School District 20 was that Ms. Maggie McGill Magwood, the incumbent social-studies teacher, gave birth to a child during the 1961 Christmas vacation. She...

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10. Two Steps Forward

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pp. 101-111

For all the good outcomes I was beginning to feel in the various aspects of my life, I was becoming restless. I wasn’t sure that I wanted my goal in life to be a high school principal or a bowling alley manager. I wasn’t sure that the satisfaction of my volunteer work would sustain me or get me to where I wanted to be. That was the decision-making...

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11. One Step to the Rear

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pp. 112-118

A lot of things were making the late 1960s a time of crisis in America and a time of growing tension in South Carolina. In 1968 state law-enforcement officers opened fire upon students on the front lawn of South Carolina State in Orangeburg. Three of the students, who had been protesting a segregated bowling alley, died in the incident...

Part Five: Making History

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12. Trailblazer

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pp. 121-125

Governor West plucked me off the political battlefield, wounded and defeated, and offered me a history-making position. It was a position I enjoyed and sought to use as an opportunity to make significant changes for citizens of South Carolina who looked like me. I lobbied the governor incessantly for the creation of the South Carolina Housing...

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13. Myth Buster

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pp. 126-134

When I accepted Governor West’s offer to head the State Human Affairs Commission (SHAC) in 1974, I didn’t expect to remain in that position for more than seventeen years. At the time my life was in a state of flux, and I was pondering several career options. But there were some compelling reasons for me to take over the agency. The...

Part Six: A Racial Arbiter

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14. The Chester Controversy

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pp. 137-138

On May 11, 1979, Chester County was thrust back into my life. A young black man was found dead along a Chester roadside. An autopsy determined that his death had been caused by a hit-and-run driver. Rumors circulated that the young man—Mickey McClintock—had been murdered for dating a white girl. Things reached a fever pitch...

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15. The Citadel Confrontation

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pp. 139-141

The Citadel is a Charleston, South Carolina, military college, where student behavior is regulated by strict rules of conduct. These rules are outlined in a student handbook known as the “Blue Book.” An important element of the regulations is the fourth-class system, which allows upperclassmen to exercise their leadership abilities upon...

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16. The Conway Crisis

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pp. 142-146

Three years after the Citadel controversy, we encountered probably the toughest racial conflict of all my years at SHAC. It involved a white high school football coach and a black quarterback at football-happy Conway High School. The dispute was absolutely incendiary. It began in April 1989 with the decision by Coach Chuck Jordan...

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17. The Confederate Battle Flag

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pp. 147-160

The year was 1962. I was teaching eighth grade youngsters at Simonton School in Charleston. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the fact that up in Columbia, the all-white General Assembly was hoisting a Confederate flag atop the State House to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the state’s participation in the Civil War...

Part Seven: Coming to Grips with Reality

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18. A Day of Reckoning

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pp. 163-173

Dayton, Ohio, was hardly the place where I would have expected to confront some difficult realities of my life and reach some crossroads decisions. But that’s where I was on October 31, 1985, when the world seemed to be converging on me from several directions at once. For one thing I was completing my tenth year as commissioner of the State...

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19. Reaffirming My Goals

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pp. 174-176

After returning to my room I was visited again by visions of Jim Clyburn’s past, present, and future. I rummaged through my past in some more detail, wondering if there was another good career I had missed. I thought back to the joy I had gotten working with young people as a teacher of English and history at Simonton and C. A....

Part Eight: The Dream Realized

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20. Deciding to Run for Congress

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pp. 179-185

When Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, he said that he felt all his past life “had been but a preparation for this hour.” On a much more modest scale, I knew that feeling. In spite of the fact that I had suffered my third election loss in 1986, when the lines were drawn following the 1990...

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21. Adventures in Campaigning

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pp. 186-194

A lot of the time spent in election campaigning runs together like something of a blur. It seems to be one continuous string of dinner speeches, “meet-and-greet” gatherings, fund-raising phone calls, long automobile rides, and power naps. There’s no way to avoid those experiences. I had learned from my earlier campaigns...

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22. Primary Election Day, 1992

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pp. 195-205

The campaign had left the Clyburn family physically exhausted and emotionally drained, which is something we always try to keep from the voters we greet on Election Day. That’s the day we dress up in our finest, flash smiles to voters standing in line, wave to reporters, and show to our friends that we have indeed survived all the...

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23. General Election, 1992

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pp. 206-214

It would have been perfectly normal for the general election of 1992, coming ten weeks after the energetic and emotional Democratic primary, to seem anticlimactic. As it turned out, it was. I learned what I needed to know about my opponent early in the campaign. As I was driving into Florence one day along Evans Street, I noticed the car in front of...

Part Nine: Mr. Clyburn Goes to Washington

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24. Arriving in Congress

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pp. 217-225

Nineteen-ninety three was quite a year for America. Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the forty-second president, and Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress. Michael Jordan scored his twenty thousandth point for the Chicago Bulls. The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Shaquille O’Neal was a rookie with the Orlando...

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25. Playing Hardball Clinton Style

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pp. 226-231

For all the promise of the Clinton presidency and the One Hundred Third Congress, things got off to a rocky start. The president’s first choice for attorney general, Zoë Baird, was discovered to have undocumented immigrants in her employ, causing her name to be withdrawn from consideration. And the president’s early attention to the...

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26. My First Bill

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pp. 232-240

The education of the neophyte congressman from South Carolina was well under way in the 1993–94 session when I set out to introduce my first bill in the House of Representatives. By then I had learned that introducing a piece of legislation was one thing, getting it passed was another. Having been blessed by the experiences of getting the Empowerment Zone authorization...

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27. Building Friendships

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pp. 241-250

Back in the 1960s, weekend evenings at Fun Bowl in Charleston were often followed by a stop at Brooks Restaurant. Its proprietor, Albert Brooks, and I became good friends and were inducted into the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity together. Omega’s motto is “Friendship is essential to the soul,” and Albert’s favorite saying was, “Friendship...

Part Ten: Treading and Toiling

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28. Wandering in the Wilderness

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pp. 253-256

The 1994 elections resulted in the Republicans gaining control of the House for the first time in forty years. It seemed that none of us Democrats saw it coming, but we should have. The arrogance of being in power for forty years shone brightly among the leaders of our caucus. Some committee and subcommittee chairmen were literally...

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29. Principles above Politics

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pp. 257-264

Several members of the Flight Attendants Association, one of whom was a constituent, started visiting with me during my first year in Congress to discuss two of their priorities: whistle-blower protection for airline employees and a ban on smoking on airliners. I had no problem with either of these issues, but I had taken to heart a lesson...

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30. Service above Self

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pp. 265-278

Two weeks after I was elected, Bill DeLoach pulled together a group of state agency heads, many of whom I had worked with for almost two decades. For the most part these were folks who had been supportive of my candidacy, and some had helped me develop the platform on which I campaigned. Bill thought it would be good for me...

Part Eleven: The Age of Obama

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31. 3-V Day: Victory,Validation, Vindication

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pp. 281-288

On that historic January 20, 2009—the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as our forty-fourth president—America was in a celebratory mood. And for good reason. Obama’s victory on November 4, 2008, had not only crashed through yet another racial barrier, it had offered great hope for millions of Americans, most of whom felt good about themselves and had high hopes for their futures...

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32. Barack and Me

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pp. 289-294

I first met Barack Hussein Obama in Boston, Massachusetts, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I first heard of him when he ran in the 2000 Democratic primary for the First Congressional District in Illinois against the incumbent Bobby L. Rush. Bobby and I were sworn into Congress together in 1993, and while I did not...

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33. Reforming Health Care

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pp. 295-304

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we got caught so flat-footed during the August 2009 recess. We—and the health-care debate—were dealt a severe setback. We left Washington for the summer break rather upbeat. The three relevant House committees, Ways and Means, Commerce, and Education and Labor, had produced...

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34. Reducing the Deficit

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pp. 305-316

A telephone call from Nancy Pelosi is not unusual. But when I answered her April 11, 2011, call her salutation was very formal and businesslike. I knew right away that this was not an ordinary call. Unless she is asking for money, Nancy seldom goes directly to the point, but this time she did. When Nancy said that she was appointing me to the so-called Biden Group, I...

Part Twelve: Blessed by the Past

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35. Genuinely Southern

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pp. 319-324

“Dum spiro spero” (While I breathe, I hope) is South Carolina’s motto. I learned it as a child, taught it as a public school teacher, and recite it at almost all of my graduation speeches, regardless of grade level. I have been stimulated and incentivized by that motto and many other maxims that have echoed in my ears over the years. My...

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36. Proudly Black

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pp. 325-334

Many of us felt that the struggles for human decency and dignity ended with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, major health-care legislation for the poor and the elderly, and the many court orders and legislative fiats that affirmed that the U.S. Constitution did indeed apply to all...

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pp. 335-338

It recently occurred to me that I was younger than Sydney when I walked out of Sumter’s Emanuel United Methodist Church back in 1953 to join the fight for social justice and equality, and I was Walter’s age when I joined the student movement that was launched in 1960. Today much of that past seems to have become part of our futures...


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pp. 339-355

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173383
E-ISBN-10: 1611173388
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173376

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2014