Weeks later, in his office, Clyburn was less anxious. His emotional endorsement of Biden as Democrats’ proper antidote for the era of President Trump had earned him the title “kingmaker,” another notch in a long career that has made him the highest-ranking African American legislator on Capitol Hill.
It was early March, and Congress was still welcoming tour groups, so Clyburn, 79, was hosting a group of black college students, all young men who were part of Call Me Mister, the teacher training program that he had helped launch decades earlier. They were seated in his office’s conference room — a marble fireplace, a gilt-edged mirror and sparkling chandelier attesting to the congressman’s stature and a wall lined with vintage images of black men who served in Congress during Reconstruction attesting to his own place in history.
“Don’t allow your skin color or heritage to keep you from excelling,” he told them in his gravelly baritone. “Don’t let it define you or confine you.”
Clyburn knows something about defining moments. When Democrats look back on their 2020 primary, Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden will be viewed as a key inflection point, perhaps the moment that everything changed.
For Clyburn, who has served in Congress for 27 years and is majority whip, the past few months have had their own inflections. In September, he lost his wife, Emily, to whom he had been married for nearly six decades, and for the first part of this year, he saw his favored presidential candidate faltering badly.
Biden had come to South Carolina offering words of comfort at Emily’s funeral last fall — a mark of the deep friendship shared between the two men. Clyburn later watched as his old friend lost in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. He privately advised Biden to deliver his often-meandering message more clearly; boil it down, as preachers do. Clyburn wasn’t planning to endorse until an elderly constituent asked him who he was voting for. At that point, he publicly lent his political capital to Biden, saying: “We know Joe. But more importantly, Joe knows us.”
Former president Barack Obama once said Clyburn was “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens,” but it would have been hard to predict just how pivotal Clyburn’s words would prove.
According to Edison Research exit poll data, 56 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters were African American, and they overwhelmingly supported Biden, who won 61 percent of their vote. (Sen. Bernie Sanders lagged far behind at 17 percent.) Sixty percent of black voters cited the Clyburn endorsement as an important factor in their decision.
Biden’s win in South Carolina reverberated across the country. He won 10 states on Super Tuesday and has continued to rack up delegates. With other state primary elections delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s delegate lead over Sanders is holding. He has Clyburn and Southern black voters to thank.
“The primary results underscored significant and instructive lessons that candidates would do well to heed: Black voters can make or break a campaign,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the advocacy group Color of Change. “From Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropping out after seeing no pathway to the black vote after South Carolina, to Biden taking home many Southern states, the message is clear.”
Putting it another way, Clyburn quotes his friend Andrew Young, the former ambassador and civil rights leader, who “used to say all the time that black folks have the best antenna.”
Before Clyburn was elected in 1993 to represent South Carolina's 6th Congressional District, he'd lost three elections. He was 52 years old, and his win that year made him the state's first black congressman since 1897.
When he got to Washington, Clyburn recalled a reporter saying to him, “You’re just getting elected to Congress at an age when people are retiring from Congress. How do you expect to be around here long enough to get anything done?”
Clyburn responded by running for president of his legislative class and was elected co-president. In 1999, he was voted in as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Democratic Caucus vice chair in 2002. Three years later he was unanimously elected chair of the Democratic Caucus. When the party regained the House majority in 2006, Clyburn became House majority whip, and he served as assistant Democratic leader from 2011 to 2019.
“I call him ‘Mr. Clyburn.’ It’s as a sign of respect,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He is a giant on the Hill and, like John Lewis, one of the lions in Congress. . . . Many of us look up to him as a mentor, to show us what to do.”
She says Clyburn, who was born in Sumter, S.C., is a “true Southern gentleman.” His hometown — named for Thomas Sumter, the Revolutionary War general who later served in Congress — shaped him. Clyburn’s mother, Almeta Dizzley Clyburn, was a beautician and entrepreneur. His father, the Rev. Enos Lloyd Clyburn, was a fundamentalist Church of God minister.
He and his two younger brothers “had to recite a different Bible verse daily, and a current event from the newspaper,” recalled Clyburn, who was elected president of his local NAACP youth chapter at age 12.
In his congressional office, where books and papers are stacked on his desk, Clyburn recalled living under Jim Crow. One incident still riles him: When his high school marching band was accepted into the town’s annual Christmas parade, white schools were given plum spots among the procession of floats.
“We were placed dead last, directly behind the horses,” he said. Clyburn carried a new clarinet and marched for miles in a freshly starched shirt and shined shoes, dodging horse manure.
In 1957, he enrolled in South Carolina State College, a historically black institution in Orangeburg. There, he helped build the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial group that organized the “freedom riders” who traveled on buses across the South to peacefully protest segregated transportation facilities. Clyburn also attended a 1960 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee convening with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
As part of the “Orangeburg Seven,” he and peers at nearby Claflin College helped strategize and lead demonstrations against segregated drugstores. A protest in 1960 turned violent and a jeering white mob and law enforcement trailed about 1,000 marchers. Clyburn was among those herded into police cruisers and jailed. Soon after, he met Emily England, who was also attending the state college.
Clyburn described her as “a cute, 92-pound coed” who offered him one of the burgers she and other students had brought to the courthouse while protesters awaited bail. “I reached for it, and with an impish grin, she drew it away, broke it in half and we shared the hamburger,” he wrote in his memoir, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.”
Fifteen months later, they were married.
“My wife was very much a sounding board,” Clyburn said. “More than that, she was pretty strategic, too.”
The Clyburn union lasted 58 years until “Miss Emily,” a librarian and widely beloved community advocate, died. Before her death, the couple designated $1.7 million in endowed funds they raised and contributed to SCSU to establish a scholarship in her honor.
They had three children — Mignon, Jennifer and Angela — and several grandchildren. Many of them live near the congressman in a quiet Columbia neighborhood — some next door, others on the same street.
They’re a politically active bunch. Mignon, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a former FCC commissioner turned private sector consultant. Angela, the youngest daughter, is political director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
“It helps to be near each other,” said Jennifer Clyburn Reed, a former teacher who leads an education center at the University of South Carolina. “We usually all vote together and go out to breakfast afterward. This is the first year that we didn’t do that.”
The tradition was one they had shared with their mother, whom they are all mourning. She was a fervent Biden supporter, but not everyone in the Clyburn family backed him.
Eldest grandson Walter A.C. Reed was a field organizer on Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. Granddaughter Sydney Reed, a medical student, had been impressed by Andrew Yang. Their mother, Jennifer, and her husband leased campaign office space to billionaire Tom Steyer, who invested heavily in South Carolina before exiting the race.
“Her daddy is for Biden, she’s renting to Steyer, her son is in TV ads for Pete. We were having fun with that,” said Clyburn. “In fact, I got a call I’ll never forget: ‘Your grandson is in this ad and he’s got your picture in the ad with him. It looks like you’re endorsing Buttigieg.’ I said ‘Well, you did say my grandson didn’t you?’ ”
Clyburn laughed about it, allowing that Walter — who has political aspirations — showed savvy. Before the election, he called the recent college graduate with a prediction.
“I said, ‘I never spanked you when you were a child, but I’m going to give you a good spanking on Election Day’,” Clyburn said, chuckling again.
Several of the presidential campaigns courted Clyburn, but he says he was always going to vote for Biden. They go way back. They had both lost three elections and understood disappointment. They'd appeared on Charlie Rose's show fairly often, had talked about desegregation and knew each other.
Yet Clyburn was dismayed by Biden’s campaign early on: the way he got thrown “off kilter” by the “touchy, feely” #MeToo allegations, and his performance in the first debate when Sen. Kamala D. Harris “went upside his head” over busing.
Clyburn offered Biden advice (“He was very open to it”) and spoke without notes during his endorsement. “I had no idea it would get that kind of reaction,” he said. “But I did say, ‘I’m trying to create a surge.’ ”
The pollsters at FiveThirtyEight analyzed the Super Tuesday results and found that Biden did well among black voters and also white voters, especially those who decided late.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me, white — male and female — saying ‘thank you,’ ” Clyburn said. “I’ve had more white people than black people thank me for that endorsement.”
As a politician, he’s known for his World Famous Fish Fry, which draws a large crowd each June, particularly when a presidential election is looming.
As a legislator, he’s pushed for rural and economic development. His 10-20-30 federal funding formula to combat poverty was included in four sections of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The formula requires that at least 10 percent of federal funds go to communities with “persistent” poverty. (The program is so popular in the party that several Democratic presidential candidates sought to rebrand Clyburn’s program as a vehicle for reparations.)
Last year, Clyburn launched the House Task Force on Rural Broadband with the goal of making sure all Americans have access to high-speed Internet by 2025. It is an issue that has been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis. Clyburn has also been pushing for community health centers to help fight the pandemic, and the first coronavirus package included $100 million for such centers.
And he’s still supporting his candidate. Clyburn held calls with clergy in Florida and Illinois to get out the vote for Biden, did radio interviews in Michigan and Pennsylvania and recorded robocalls that went out in several Southern states. Campaigning has cooled as the nation’s political leaders respond to the current health crisis, but Clyburn has said that if Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, he should select a black woman as his vice president.
“I say a black woman as opposed to a minority,” he said. “It needs to be a black woman. Biden is winning black women overwhelmingly.”
Clyburn’s short list includes: Sen. Harris; Rep. Val Demings, the Florida congresswoman who helped lead the Trump impeachment hearings; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate; and Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan E. Rice.
Consider them endorsed.