Clyburn’s Halls of History

Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:22pm

Not too far back, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had reproductions made of the official House portraits of three pioneering Members — Joseph Rainey (R-S.C.), Romualdo Pacheco (R-Calif.) and Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.), respectively the first black, Hispanic and female Representatives — for the halls of his Capitol leadership suite.

“Those are reminders to people we are all standing on someone’s shoulders here,” says Clyburn, only the second black to rise to the No. 3 House leadership position.

But Clyburn, 66, had another reason for having the reproductions made. The originals hang in front of a bank of elevators just off the House visitors’ gallery on the third floor, where photography is banned.

“I want them in this hallway so when young people come up [here] and see those pictures on this floor they can take pictures,” he says, noting that he’d brought up the problem to “my leadership” when the originals were initially hung.

The trio of portraits are hardly the only reminders of those who have broken barriers that adorn his suite’s walls, however.

Clyburn, who himself was active in the 1960s civil rights movement — organizing sit-ins at lunch counters, marching and facing arrest throughout South Carolina — is keenly aware of the importance of honoring those who were true pioneers.

He leans across his office sofa to point out a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a rally just months before his 1968 assassination.

In the picture, King stands at the microphone, his gaze focused straight ahead, while Clyburn and others beside him are looking off to the left, their faces awash with worry. Some appear about to jump off their seats — and with good reason, Clyburn says.

A TV lamp had just fallen to the ground and when it hit the floor, “it went off like a gun shot. … That picture tells me how ready he was for his eventuality,” Clyburn recalls. “This guy never flinches, not one bit. He didn’t miss a cadence in his speech.”

Mary McLeod Bethune, a leading early 20th-century black educator who was born in Mayesville not far from where Clyburn grew up in Sumter, also gets a nod. A large photo of her statue, which is located in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, hangs on one wall. “My mother just thought this was the greatest woman in the world and she made me learn stuff about her,” Clyburn says, stopping in front of the picture to reminisce.

Just down the hall from his personal office, a conference room is decorated with the black- and-white images of the eight other black Members from South Carolina, all of whom served in the late 1800s. (Clyburn is the first black since 1897 to represent the Palmetto State in Congress.) One of them, Rep. George Washington Murray (R-S.C.), is “reputed” to be a distant relative, Clyburn says.

“One day I was talking with one of my great aunts. She was very recalcitrant about discussing it. Finally she said to me, ‘Back, you know, way back then, a lot of things happened without the benefit of marriage.’ I knew what that meant so I just stopped talking,” he says.

There are also reminders of his immediate family’s personal struggles over discrimination.

His minister father, Enos, was forced to drop out of school in junior high because at the time “no school was provided for blacks beyond the seventh grade” in the South Carolina county where he lived, Clyburn notes. Later, Clyburn’s father was admitted to the historically black Morris College, where he was a standout student but was not allowed to continue after his junior year because he didn’t have a high school diploma.

Clyburn didn’t learn of this until 1978, when he was running for South Carolina secretary of state and a former classmate of his father’s relayed the story to him.

“That night I drove straight to Sumter, woke my daddy up around one in the morning, and I told him what I had just heard. … Then he told me.”

Fast-forward several decades, to when Clyburn was retelling the story in front of a group that included the Morris College president, who was so struck by the tale he decided to investigate. On May 10, 2003, the Morris College Board of Trustees awarded Clyburn’s father a posthumous bachelor’s of theology, which now hangs on Clyburn’s leadership office wall.

Then there are the mementos marking important benchmarks in his own life.

When Clyburn was sworn in as Majority Whip in January, the first black Whip, ex-Rep. Bill Gray (D-Pa.), gave him a kangaroo hyde bullwhip, which hangs in a case near his desk. (“It was made by the company that makes the whips for Indiana Jones,” Clyburn notes, breaking into a hearty chuckle.)

Over in his Rayburn Building office, many of these same themes are continued. Visitors are confronted with a lobby wall of black-and-white photos featuring nine key figures in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation case, many of whom Clyburn knew personally. The late Eliza Briggs, for instance, an unassuming woman depicted standing next to her dining room table wearing a floral-printed church dress, was a petitioner in Briggs v. Elliott (one of four other anti-school-segregation cases eventually rolled into the Brown suit).

Briggs was later “very active” in Clyburn’s inaugural Congressional run in 1992, Clyburn says. (A few years back, Clyburn successfully pushed legislation that awarded some of these figures, including Briggs and her husband, Harry, a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. He also co-authored a short book about the Briggs case.)

Inside his personal office in Rayburn, Clyburn also has a blown-up yearbook photo of the black students he mentored when he was a high school teacher in Charleston in the 1960s. Nearly all of these students went on to greatness, Clyburn proudly notes, pointing out that a future U.S. ambassador, a future law firm partner and the first black graduate of The Citadel were among them. Still, he cryptically notes that one of them apparently went on to become “a sniper” in New York.

If much of Clyburn’s offices bear testament to the struggle for racial equality, there’s also a lighter side. He admits to an ongoing “love affair” with turtles — which he dates back to his childhood and his introduction to the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

When he was 9 or 10, Clyburn’s parents gave him two turtles. “I climbed up on top of the bathtub and I put those turtles up in the bathroom window to keep my brothers from fooling with [them]. … When I came home from school that day I could have had turtle soup. The sun boiled that water and killed my turtles,” he recalls. “I was just devastated. My turtles — gone.”

All in all, Clyburn says his offices and home probably hold some 100 turtle figurines and carvings. A turtle-adorned motto hanging not far from his Rayburn desk reads: “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

Given the standing-on-the-shoulders-of-others theme that predominates in his offices, Clyburn is understandably miffed when he hears criticism lobbed at Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) about “whether or not he’s black enough, whether or not he’s paid his dues.”

“John Lewis and I did what we did so his children and my children and the Barack Obamas of the world would not have to do it,” he asserts.

Clyburn says he is “pleased” with the Obama presidential campaign and views Obama as the first black to “have a legitimate chance.” But that doesn’t mean he’s endorsing him in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary. “I’m not going to endorse anybody,” he says, before adding minutes later with a coy smile: “I have no plans today, but the South Carolina primary is not until January — a lot of things can happen between now and January.”

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