- 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 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.”
More About Clyburn
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 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.”
In March 2019 as well, 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.”
For an overview of Rep. Clyburn’s voting record on a wide range of key issues, click here.
For additional information on James Clyburn, click here.