The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. James Clyburn: ‘The country has topped out to the right’

Placeholder while article actions load

If anyone can take the long view of history, it’s U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). The assistant minority leader of the House has lived it, from his childhood in segregated Sumter, S.C., through the civil rights movement that benefited him, sometimes in unexpected ways — he met wife-to-be Emily in jail after both were arrested for protesting for civil rights — to his election to Congress in 1992.

Clyburn, 74, tells his story in “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.” He and Emily recently spent an evening at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, greeting admirers, posing for photos and adding signatures to personal copies of the book.

At the Gantt Center, he shared his thoughts on the pace of change in America: “The country from its inception is like the pendulum on a clock. It goes back and forward. It tops out to the right and starts back to the left — it tops out to the left and starts back to the right. I can tell you the country has topped out to the right, and the country is moving back to the left.” And remember, he said, it “spends twice as much time in the center.”

Clyburn, along with fellow congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, will be working, he said, to ensure that Democratic voters turn out in the November midterm elections. Will he be crossing the state line as incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan wages a tough race against Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House? “Yes, I do plan to spend as much time in North Carolina as North Carolinians can tolerate,” he said.

In the foreword to “Blessed Experiences,” actress Alfre Woodard, Clyburn’s friend writes: “this book reveals a straightforward, unpretentious, deeply patriotic, and principled American who continues to represent his constituents with great skill and integrity.”

In October 2011, in an interview, the congressman was indeed straightforward, confidently predicting President Obama’s reelection while some were having doubts. At the Gantt book-signing, he talked with She the People about everything from events in Ferguson, Mo., to the continuing and staunch opposition to the president.

On African American progress and challenges:

“The answer to both of those … would be the same, the most progress in the political arena in my lifetime, the most work in the political arena. What we have seen has been the result of what you do when you participate in national elections. You never would have gotten Barack Obama as president of the United States.”

“We need to do more work getting people to understand it’s not just about the presidency; it’s not just about who may represent you in the Congress. It’s about who is on the school board, who is on the city council and county council, who sits in the governor’s office…. That’s where we’ve got to do the most work. Our work has got to be done in the political arena. You’ve got to get people to understand that it’s what happening down on Main Street, in their local community that’s affecting their lives more than anything else.”

On Ferguson, Mo.:

“Everything that’s going on in and around Ferguson today is because the people in those communities who showed up in record numbers in 2012 to vote for Barack Obama didn’t bother to participate in their local elections.”

On opposition to the president:

“People may deny it. The fact of the matter is much of this president’s adversity comes from the fact that there are people in this country who are pretty wealthy — and many of them hold high office — who will never accept him or any other person of his color in the White House…. It’s going to change when we change our behavior and stop ceding territory to others.”