- Member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
- Former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
- Commonly ascribes the actions of his political and ideological adversaries to racism
- Presided over a CBC delegation’s friendly visit with Cuban president Fidel Castro in 2000
Born in July 1940 in Sumter, South Carolina, James Clyburn was elected president of his NAACP youth chapter when he was 12 years old. He later attended the historically black South Carolina State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. During his college years, Clyburn (along with John Lewis) became a leading member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize numerous civil-rights marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Incarcerated more than once for his participation in these events, Clyburn met his future wife in jail. When his schooling was complete, he took a job as a teacher at C.A. Brown High School in Charleston.
After an unsuccessful 1970 bid for the South Carolina General Assembly, Clyburn in 1971 moved to the city of Columbia, where he served as minority advisor to Governor John West. In 1974 West appointed Clyburn as the state’s human affairs commissioner, a post Clyburn held until 1992. During that 18-year period, Clyburn, a Democrat, twice ran losing campaigns for secretary of state (in 1978 and 1986). When congressional districts were redrawn following the 1990 census, South Carolina’s Sixth District became majority-black. At that point, Clyburn resigned his job as human affairs commissioner to run for that Sixth District seat. He won the vote handily and has been re-elected every two years since then.
Clyburn is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which elected him chairman in 1999. In June 2000, accompanied by Representatives Bennie Thompson and Gregory Meeks, he presided over a CBC delegation’s friendly visit to Cuban president Fidel Castro. Following the trip, Clyburn praised Castro for his “great sense of history and a great sense of self,” describing him as a “very reflective” man and “a policy wonk.”
Clyburn and Race
Clyburn commonly ascribes the actions of his political and ideological adversaries to racism. For instance, when former President Bill Clinton likened presidential candidate Barack Obama‘s 2008 Democratic primary victory in South Carolina to former candidate Jesse Jackson‘s primary victory there twenty years earlier, Clyburn concluded that Clinton’s remarks were embedded with a racist intent to diminish Obama’s achievement.
When the Democratic Party in 2008 nominated Barack Obama as its first black presidential nominee, Clyburn said: “I thought this day would come, but I didn’t think I’d live to see it. I got home, and I was so emotional I couldn’t feel myself. I was numb.”
When South Carolina’s Republican Governor Mark Sanford formally rejected federal earmarks for his state in early 2009, Clyburn alleged that Sanford was a racially insensitive elitist: “He [Sanford] happens to be a millionaire. He may not need help for the plantation his family owns, but the people whose grandparents and great-grandparents worked those plantations need the help.”
In March 2009, when Governor Sanford compared President Barack Obama‘s massive stimulus spending to the disastrous fiscal policies of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Clyburn characterized the governor’s remarks as “beyond the pale.” When reporters subsequently asked Clyburn if his use of that phrase was intended to imply that Sanford’s remarks had racial overtones, the congressman replied: “I’m sure he would not say that, but how did he get to Zimbabwe? What took the man to Zimbabwe? Someone should ask him if that’s really the best comparison.… How can he compare this country’s situation to Zimbabwe?”
At an event in 2011, Clyburn shared a stage with Nation Of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan, who discussed the NOI book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which purports to provide “irrefutable evidence that the most prominent of the Jewish pilgrim fathers [sic] used kidnapped Black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history.” After Farrakhan spoke about the need for blacks to pool their resources and work together, Clyburn said: “I want to thank Min. Farrakhan for offering up a number of precepts that we ought to adhere to.” When some Jewish organizations subsequently criticized Clyburn for having appeared at an event with Farrakhan, the congressman told the NOI publication Final Call that he was “not bothered in the least bit” by the criticisms.
In November 2012, Clyburn reacted angrily to criticism that Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham had directed toward U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is black. Specifically, the senators suggested that Rice was “incompetent” and “not very bright” after she had presented a completely false narrative of a deadly September 11, 2012 terrorist attack that an al Qaeda-affiliated group had launched against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans in the process. “Those are code words.” Clyburn told CNN. “… Those of us who were born and raised in the South—we’ve been hearing these little words and phrases all of our lives and we get insulted by them.”
In Clyburn’s calculus, even a refusal to accept the theory of manmade global warming is evidence of racism because, as the congressman explains, “African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change economically, socially and through our health and well-being.”
In February 2014, Clyburn detected racism in the “barriers” that allegedly made it exceedingly difficult for black candidates to be elected to statewide office in South Carolina. One of those barriers, he said, was a state law stipulating that in order to win a primary election and avoid a runoff, a candidate needed to capture at least 50% (plus one vote) of the ballots cast, even in instances where three or more candidates were running. Said Clyburn:
“That 50-percent-plus-one rule was put in, in order to negate or minimize opportunity for African-Americans to win the primary. It’s a very slick way to dilute the impact of the black vote.”
As a remedy, Clyburn called for South Carolina to change its law, so a candidate in such cases would need to win only 40% of the votes.
In May 2014 Clyburn derided Republican Senator Tim Scott, a black conservative representing South Carolina, for allegedly betraying his own race. “If you call progress electing a person with the pigmentation that he has, who votes against the interest and aspirations of 95 percent of the black people in South Carolina, then I guess that’s progress,” said Clyburn.
In a May 21, 2014 interview, Clyburn suggested that House Republicans were plotting to use the newly formed select committee that would investigate the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist attacks of September 11, 2012, chiefly to smear President Obama for racially motivated reasons. Noting that he saw “similarities in terms of where we are [now] as a country” to what he had experienced in the Jim Crow South, Clyburn said:
“I would not be all that concerned … about this new Benghazi select committee that we just put in place. One of the reasons I’ve been very critical of doing this is because I know that they are not out there to try to find what may or may not have happened….
“I seem to remember our history. After reconstruction, when people of color gained political presence throughout the South, they drummed up all kinds of things, indictments and accusations, they drove these people out of the South…. Some went to Chicago, some came here to Washington, DC. And I see the same kind of efforts to discredit this president, this administration….
“If I didn’t know the history of this country so well, I might not be as concerned as I am.I am concerned because I see us revisiting those same kinds of things that led to the end of Reconstruction at the end of the 1890s.”
In an early November 2014 interview with MSNBC, on the eve of the midterm elections, Clyburn said: “For anybody to say there’s nothing that is racial about some of the animus being expressed by [toward] President Obama, you’re not telling the truth. We know with a lot of people, I don’t care what he does. He’s not going to be acceptable because of his skin color.” “None of us can successfully change our skin color nor can we change our gender,” Clyburn continued. “There are gender biases existing in this country. We have to work through those things. Those that are Democrats that have a history of being fair on civil rights and those kinds of activities. We’ve got to stick with that agenda and work through it and don’t be ashamed or afraid of it.”
Following revelations in November 2017 that fellow Democratic Representative John Conyers had committed sexual harassment during his time in Congress, Clyburn suggested that Conyers’ status as an elected official differentiated him from media and entertainment figures who had been charged with similar offenses. This came to light when a video posted on Twitter showed a reporter asking Clyburn: “Other men in other industries have faced similar accusations … and gotten out of the way, resign, stepped down, far faster than [Conyers] has, right … Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer?” To that, Clyburn responded: “Who elected them?” The reporter then followed up by asking whether “it’s different because he’s elected,” but the elevator doors closed before Clyburn offered any reply. Robert Draper, a writer for The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic, subsequently tweeted that Clyburn, in defending Conyers, had also invoked the name of Susan Smith, a white South Carolina woman who had infamously murdered her two young sons in 1994. “James Clyburn compared Conyers’ accusers to the child murderer Susan Smith, who initially [falsely] claimed [that] a black man had abducted her kids,” Draper tweeted. “Clyburn said, these are all white women who’ve made these charges against Conyers.” Draper subsequently affirmed that he had verified Clyburn’s comments through two sources, adding: “Clyburn has used the Susan Smith parallel more than once, to members & staffers.”
During a July 29, 2020 call-in program on C-SPAN 3, a caller asked Clyburn why taxpayers should be forced to pay for cleaning up the mess caused by the recent Black Lives Matter riots that had erupted in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who had died after being physically abused by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Clyburn responded by stating that white supremacists had infiltrated the protests and were responsible for the violence, a claim that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison had previously made. Said Clyburn:
“Keith Ellison was talking about white supremacists, who have dressed up in black, who have camouflaged themselves to look like somebody black, and going around knocking out windows, they showed it. They showed [laughs], and they are now investigating, and I will tell him that there are a lot of people subverting the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to show this country the way to go when it comes to law enforcement … So don’t tell me that some foreign people, some of whom I believe are being financed by sinister forces — we all know that the Russians are doing things to spread disinformation throughout.”
Contempt for President Trump
In an August 16, 2017 interview on CNN, Clyburn said that the United States was becoming more like Nazi Germany with a Hitler-like Donald Trump as president. “We are approaching a place that we’ve been before,” he stated. “We remember from our studies what happened in the 1930s in Germany. I told a business group down at Hilton Head several weeks before the election, that what I saw coming was a replay of what happened in Nazi Germany.” Clyburn then asserted that both Trump and Hitler were elected by the people: “The fact of the matter is Hitler was elected as chancellor of Germany. He did not become a dictator until later when people began to be influenced by his foolishness. We just elected a president and he’s got a lot of foolishness going on, and I’m afraid that too many people are being influenced by that foolishness.”
Clyburn revisited this theme in a March 2019 interview with NBC News, where he said:
“I was asked, have I ever seen a climate like this before, and I said, ‘No, I have not, but I have studied about climates like this, and I reminded folks there that Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. And he went about the business of discrediting institutions to the point that people bought into his stuff. To allow anybody to discredit the press, to discredit the military, to discredit our leadership, both in the Congress and outside, you’d be asking for dire consequences. And I think it’s time for the Congress — House and Senate — to grow spines, and do what is necessary to protect this democracy. This man and his family are the greatest threats to democracy of my lifetime.”
On December 18, 2019, Clyburn urged his colleagues in the House of Representatives to “protect the Constitution” by voting in favor of two articles of impeachment against President Trump. “Today, we have a president who seems to believe he is a king or above the law,” Clyburn said to his fellow House members. “[Thomas] Paine warned us that so an unlimited power can belong only to God almighty.” The congressman later quoted Paine, one of the fathers of the American Revolution, saying: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” He then likened the House members who were preparing to vote on impeachment, to the soldiers who had prepared to fight for America’s independence in the 1770s; he also compared President Trump to King George II, the monarch who ruled Britain during the American Revolution. “We must not be sunshine patriots today in our efforts to protect the Constitution upon which this great Republic stands,” Clyburn stated. “While our fight is not among the trenches of battlefields, but in the hallowed halls of this Congress, our duty is no less patriotic.”
In a February 2020 interview, the Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto, responding to Clyburn’s obvious hostility toward President Trump, said: “Let’s leave the words aside. Whether you like his [Trump’s] style or not, or tweets or not, or comments or not, he’s delivered the goods for a lot of African-Americans, has he not? With record-low unemployment levels for one group or another [most notably blacks and Hispanics]. Among Africa-Americans, you don’t think that’s something constructive?” In response, Clyburn, who had voted to impeach Trump in December 2019, said: “Come on, Neil. No, no, it’s not true. I’m saying that the African-American unemployment is not the lowest it’s ever been unless you count slavery. We were fully employed during slavery. So it all depends on how you measure this up.”
In a March 2020 interview with Axios on HBO, Clyburn again raised the specter of Hitler when speaking about Donald Trump, calling the president a racist and likening modern-day America to Germany during the Nazi Party’s rise to power. “I used to wonder how could the people of Germany allow Hitler to exist,” said Cyburn. “But with each passing day, I’m beginning to understand how. And that’s why I’m trying to sound the alarm.” Claiming that Trump had told more than 30 lies during his recent State of the Union address, the congressman added: “Fully half of those lies, the Republican side of the House stood up and cheered they knew that was not true. But they cheered him on. I really believe that the people of Germany knew Adolf Hitler was lying. And before they knew it, they no longer had a chancellor but a dictator. Anything that’s happened before can happen again.”
In the aftermath of a highly publicized May 25, 2020 killing of a black criminal suspect by a white police officer in Minneapolis, numerous American cities were overrun by weeks of protests and violent riots led by Black Lives Matter and Antifa. One of the cities where the riots were most destructive was Portland, Oregon. Following a 50-day period during which Portland’s mayor refused to take any serious measures to quell the mayhem, President Trump sent federal troops to that city in an effort to restore order. During a July 20, 2020 interview regarding Trump’s decision, CNN anchor John Berman asked Clyburn: “The Democrats calling for an investigation into what’s happening in Portland. What do you want to know?” The congressman replied:
“I’d like to know who ordered those people [federal troops] who be there. The way I understand things, it seems that somebody had to be deputized by the attorney general or some order from him to do what they were doing. And so I believe law enforcement should be left up to local communities and these communities. If they want help, they will summons the federal government to intercede. That’s the way it’s been done as long as I have been following this sort of thing. For all of a sudden for these people to go in there, nothing from the governor, from local law enforcement, show up with their faces covered in unmarked cars, this commercial in this ad from the Lincoln Project is exactly what we are about to experience in this country, the beginning of the ending of this democracy. That kind of activity is the activity of a police state, and this president and this attorney general seem to be doing everything they possibly can to impose Gestapo activities in local communities, and that is what I have been warning about for a long time. I do believe that this election is all about the preservation of the greatest democracy that this country has ever known.”
During an August 2, 2020 appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Clyburn likened President Trump to the late fascist Prime Minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini. Guest host Dana Bash said, “You said that you don’t think President Trump would be willing to give up his office and that, quote, ‘He thinks that the American people will be duped by him like the people of Germany were duped by Adolf Hitler. Do you think Donald Trump is comparable to Adolf Hitler?” Clyburn replied:
“What I said started about two-and-a-half, maybe three years ago after one of his state of the unions. That I feel very strongly that this man has taken on as tactics. I feel very strongly that he is Mussolini. Putin is Hitler. I said that back then, and I believe that. I believe very strongly this guy never had an idea about being want to peacefully transfer power. I don’t think he plans to leave the White House. He doesn’t plan to have a fair election. I believe that he plans to install himself in some kind of emergency way to continue hold on to office. That is why the American people had better wake up. I know a little bit about history, and I know how countries find their demise. It is when we trail to let democracy and the fundamentals of which is a fair and unfettered election and why he is trying to put a cloud over this election and floating the idea of postponing the elections.”
More About Clyburn
One of the more significant votes Clyburn has cast as a congressman was his February 2007 opposition to President Bush’s so-called troop “surge”—the ultimately pivotal and dramatically successful deployment of some 21,500 additional U.S. soldiers to Iraq. In an August 2007 interview with the Washington Post, Clyburn was asked what his party would do if General David Petraeus, the commander in charge of the surge, were to issue a report saying that the new strategy was effectively quelling the Iraqi insurgency. Recognizing that such a report would inevitably impede Democrats’ efforts to garner congressional support for defunding the war, Clyburn said: “Well, that would be a real big problem for us, no question about that.”
In 2009 Clyburn supported the 1,200-page American Clean Energy and Security Act, popularly dubbed the Waxman-Markey Act. This legislation’s signature program was a “cap-and-trade” arrangement mandating steep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, coupled with punitive taxes on any businesses exceeding their predetermined emissions allowances. After Waxman-Markey was passed by a 219-to-212 vote in the House of Representatives, Americans for Tax Reform reported that Clyburn, shortly prior to the cap-and-trade vote, had tried to influence the votes of 13 uncommitted House Democrats by transferring a total of $28,000 in campaign contributions to their coffers.
In a February 2010 interview with Fox News, Clyburn offered this prescription for helping the U.S. economy emerge from the deep recession in which it was mired: “We’re not going to save our way out of this recession. We’ve got to spend our way out of this recession, and I think most economists know that.”
Interpreting biblical Christian precepts as divinely inspired justifications for expanding the welfare state, Clyburn said in September 2012: “What we’ve gotten from a lot of my Republican friends has been a lot of recitations of their faith, but when it comes time to fulfill what we find in Matthew 25—do ‘unto the least of these’—to [Republicans] there‘s something wrong with feeding people when they’re hungry. This is not the Christian way that you do things.”
In March 2019, Clyburn came to the defense of fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who had recently come under fire for a number of anti-Semitic remarks she had made. Noting that many of the media reports about Omar had neglected to mention, for context, the fact that she had been forced to flee the violence in her native Somalia and spend four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States, Clyburn said: “I’m serious about that. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’ It’s more personal with her. I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
While House members worked to craft legislation that would offer some relief to the many Americans whose health and finances had been affected by the coronavirus outbreak of early 2020, Clyburn — during a March 19 phone call with more than 200 fellow House Democrats — told his colleagues that the bill was “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Soon thereafter, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled her bill, it contained numerous provisions that had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but were intended instead to advance a variety of left-wing agendas. Among these were provisions mandating: increased fuel emission standards for airlines; carbon offsets; student loan relief; the strengthening of collective bargaining powers for unions; the expansion of wind and solar tax credits; the collection of federal and corporate gender and racial diversity data; a financial bailout of the U.S. Post Office; the automatic extension of non-immigrant visas; a restriction preventing colleges from providing the federal government with information about students’ citizenship status; funding for Planned Parenthood; and authorization for election-related practices such as same-day voter registration, early voting, voting by mail, ballot harvesting, and absentee balloting.
During a June 14, 2020 appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Clyburn discussed the recent death of Rayshard Brooks, a black Atlanta man whom a white police officer had shot and killed after the inebriated Brooks resisted arrest, became violent, stole the officer’s taser, tried to flee with the taser, and attempted to shoot the officer with the taser while fleeing. Said Clyburn:
“I was very incensed over that…. The fact of the matter is he was drinking, fell asleep in the Wendy’s drive-thru. And they have already patted him down. He had no weapon on him. Where did they think he was going to go? So he’s running away. You got his car. You can easily find him…. This did not call for lethal force…. It has got to be the culture, it’s got to be the system. You’ve got an African-American woman mayor, you’ve got a woman police chief. So the sensitivities that we look for in people are there. But it’s not engrained in the institution. That’s why I’ve been saying you’ve got to restructure our judicial system, restructure our health care system, restructure our educational system. We know that. All of these things have been put together in order to maintain suppression of African-Americans all the way back to 1865. People forget reconstruction didn’t last for 12 years. All the stuff that we talk about reconstruction, that’s not reconstruction. We institutionalized second-class citizenship of black people during the Jim crow era.”
In the same program, Clyburn added: “I didn’t grow up in fear of police, even in a segregated environment. We never feared the police. But, all of a sudden now, I do fear the police. The young blacks fear the police. Why? Because we have built-in a system that’s responding, once again, to Brown v. Board of Education and everything that comes with it. When I was growing up, we didn’t have black police. The fact of the matter is, this is a structure that has been developed that we have got to deconstruct.”
For an overview of Rep. Clyburn’s voting record on a wide range of key issues, click here.