Clyburn, James 1940–
James Clyburn 1940–
Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1992, James Clyburn was South Carolina’s first black Representative in Congress since the Reconstruction era in the late 19th-century. Graduating from college in the early 1960s, Clyburn became involved in the civil rights movement, later making a career for himself in the administration of government anti-poverty programs. In Congress he has shown astute political skills, and was elected by his African American peers in Congress to head the Congressional Black Caucus for a two-year term beginning in 1999. His influence continues to grow as he was one of the leaders who successfully delivered an unprecedented Southern black voter turnout in the 1998 national elections, making possible a series of unexpected victories for Democratic candidates in South Carolina and across the rest of the South.
James Clyburn was born on July 21, 1940, in Sumter, South Carolina, a medium-sized city in the South Carolina lowlands east of Columbia, the state capital. His father was a minister. Clyburn attended South Carolina State College, one of the South’s premier historically black educational institutions, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1962. Later, he would work hard in Congress to secure funds for the renovation of historically black colleges, which suffered financially as formerly-segregated Southern state university systems opened to black students. The young man embarked on a career as a high school history teacher, but soon the waves of political change that were sweeping the South began to have an impact on the direction his life would take.
The so-called “Great Society” initiatives of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson included a whole phalanx of programs designed to alleviate poverty in Southern black communities. For educated young Southerners like James Clyburn, one effect was to open up new job opportunities in the administration of these government programs. Clyburn was named director of a program called the Neighborhood Youth Corps in 1966, and then became executive director of the South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers in 1968. He married Emily
At a Glance…
Born July 21, 1940, in Sumter, South Carolina; son of a minister; married Emily England; four children. Education: Graduated from South Carolina State College, 1962; attended University of South Carolina Law School, 1972–74.
Career: U.S. Representative. Director, Neighborhood Youth Corps, 1966–68; executive director, South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers, 1968–71; special assistant to South Carolina Governor for Human Resource Development, 1971–74; South Carolina Human Affairs Commissioner, 1974–92; United States Representative, South Carolina Sixth District, 1992–; led massive get-out-the-vote drive in congressional elections, 1998; elected chair, Congressional Black Caucus, 1998.
Addresses: Office— 319 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
England, from the town of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and the family grew to include three daughters.
Clyburn’s career took a step up in the 1970s when he entered the circle of the state’s governor, John West. He became the governor’s Special Assistant for Human Resources Development in 1971, and, possibly with future political ambitions on his mind, enrolled in law school, attending the University of South Carolina Law School from 1972 through 1974. That year Clyburn was named a South Carolina Human Affairs Commissioner, remaining in the post through 1992 and amassing a formidable network of political allies. While serving as Human Affairs Commissioner, Clyburn ran for the elective office of Secretary of State twice, losing by small margins but building name recognition and serving notice that he would be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
In 1992, Clyburn declared his candidacy for the U.S. Congress in South Carolina’s black-majority Sixth District, an irregularly-shaped unit that includes parts of the cities of Charleston and Columbia, most of Orangeburg (home of Clyburn’s alma mater, now renamed South Carolina State University), and parts of the state’s tobacco-growing areas. He faced four opponents, all black, in the Democratic primary, the victor of which was virtually assured of election in November in this heavily-Democratic district. Clyburn reaped the benefits of his years of statewide exposure, winning the primary with 56 percent of the vote. He has cruised to victory in each general election since then; his 1998 margin was an impressive 73 to 25 percent.
In Congress, Clyburn has generally shared a liberal voting record with his fellow African American Representatives (of the 39 black House members in 1999, only one was a Republican). He worked to resist the attacks on affirmative action that surfaced in the Republican-dominated Congresses of the 1990s. Early on, Clyburn favored enterprise zones, a front-burner program during the administration of President Bill Clinton that offered tax breaks to corporations that located their operations in economically-depressed areas. He broke with Democratic liberals, however, by supporting measures to require a balanced federal budget and by coming out in favor of term limits.
The 1998 Congressional elections, coming in the midst of the national trauma of the impeachment of President Clinton, were hotly contested everywhere, and nowhere more so than in South Carolina, where the veteran 76-year-old Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings faced a stiff challenge from Representative Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican with whom Clyburn had clashed in the past. Clyburn emerged as one of the leaders in an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort, criss-crossing the state in support of Hollings and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hodges.
Clyburn’s efforts bore fruit. Although South Carolina has been considered one of the nation’s most conservative and Republican states, both Hollings and Hodges emerged victorious, and Clyburn could rightly claim a large share of the credit for their victories. “He’s a smart guy,” Clyburn was quoted as saying (in reference to Hodges) by the New York Times News Service.“He knows where his margin of victory was, and I don’t think there’s going to be any problem getting our concerns addressed.” At the same time, Clyburn was diplomatic. Declining to speak in terms of “demands,” a word that had surfaced in connection with similar black-led victories across the South, Clyburn offered this advice in the same interview: “Let’s not be too pointed in our language. We can do this without using those inflammatory terms.”
The advice exemplified the political skills shown throughout Clyburn’s career as he has enjoyed generally good relationships with Republicans across the aisle and with South Carolina’s business community (he worked unsuccessfully to lure German automaker Mercedes to the state). As a result of those political skills, Clyburn was elected without opposition to the post of chair of the Congressional Black Caucus after the November 1998 elections in which he played such a crucial role. “He’s a conciliator,” said fellow Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee in an interview with the Associated Press. “He will bring the caucus together and at the same time work well with all Democrats.” Clyburn promised to work toward the appointment of more black federal judges, particularly in the South, to address environmental concerns in minority residential areas, to maintain affirmative action programs, and to promote the sampling technique, thought by some to enumerate minorities more accurately, in the national census set for the year 2000. James Clyburn’s long years of work in the political trenches had finally brought him to the forefront of African American political life.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics, 1998 ed., National Journal, 1997.
Jet, December 7, 1998, p. 4.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 18, 1998, p.A12.
The Oregonian (Portland, OR), November 6, 1998, p.A16.
Spartanburg Herald-Journal, June 2, 1993.
Washington Post, May 12, 1998, p. A17.
—James M. Manheim
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