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A civil rights love story: The congressman who met his wife in jail in 1960

Emily and James Clyburn on their wedding day in 1961. (James Clyburn/Twitter)

Like a lot of Twitter users, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) yielded to a quote-tweet prompt Thursday, encouraging people to share “a story about yourself that sounds like a lie but is absolutely true.”

By Friday afternoon, it had been retweeted more than 14,000 times.

So that’s the 240-character version of the story. Here’s the longer version.

Clyburn started working on civil rights before he was old enough to drive. At 12, he was the president of the local NAACP youth chapter in Sumter, S.C. He was also friends with a lot of kids in Summerton, the next town over, whose court case against school segregation became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

After high school, Clyburn went on to college at South Carolina State University, a historically black school in Orangeburg. There he continued his civil rights work, including organizing the first sit-ins in the state, weeks after the first ones in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960.

One of those sit-ins had more than 2,000 participants, mostly college students.

“They locked up over 300 people, but the leaders got separated from the rest,” Clyburn recounted on C-SPAN in 2018. “So when all of the [other] people got out of jail, they kept us, the leaders.”

A white mob attacked Elijah Cummings for integrating a swimming pool. He was 11.

The students who had just gotten out headed for the college cafeteria. They soon returned to the jail with food, just as Clyburn and the other leaders were being released.

A petite, young woman approached him holding a hamburger. She was Emily England, a fellow college student from the small town of Moncks Corner.

“So I reach for the hamburger; she pulled it back, broke it in half. She had half the hamburger, gave me the other half,” Clyburn said. “I was so grateful for that half a hamburger, I married her 18 months later.”

Their first daughter, Mignon Clyburn, was born in 1962. The Clyburns went on to have two more daughters, Jennifer and Angela. They moved to Charleston, where he worked as a history teacher and she a school librarian.

Clyburn has been a member of Congress since 1993, and he has become a power broker in presidential politics. Democratic candidates flock to his “world famous” fish fry and vie for his endorsement in the primaries.

For the first decade of their marriage, Clyburn thought meeting Emily had been a chance encounter, an act of fate. Then, at their 10th wedding anniversary, he joked, “I found out I [was] being stalked.”

The Clyburns had invited some of their “jailbird” friends who had also been arrested the day they met down to Charleston to celebrate with them. As the anniversary party began to wind down, James Clyburn said to his friends, “ ‘Guys we were very fortunate. We made such great choices for spouses.’ And I’m waxing eloquently, you know, there was a little Jack Daniels contributing to that,” he said.

Emily Clyburn stood in the doorway and said, “That’s what you think.”

Then, “she told me the rest of the story”: One day, she was looking out of her dormitory window with her roommate and saw him walking across the campus.

He wasn’t alone. He was walking with his girlfriend at the time.

“And she told her roommate, ‘They do not make a good couple. He is going to be my husband,’ ” Clyburn recounted. “And she laid out her plan.”

Weeks later, they both just happened to get arrested at the same sit-in.

“So guys, no matter what you think, sit down sometime to get the real story about how you got reined in,” he said, laughing.

The two were married for 58 years until Emily Clyburn’s death in September.

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