Clyburn was the wife of 58 years of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip. The two were students at South Carolina State University and met after he was arrested during a civil rights demonstration on campus. In a 2007 interview with MSNBC, the congressman recounted what happened at the courthouse hearing. “We had been in jail all night, and they hadn’t fed us all day. I was standing there and I said to nobody in particular, 'Boy, am I hungry,’” he said. “There was this little 95-pound person standing nearby. Next thing, she is back with a hamburger. She offered it to me, then pulled it back. She tore it in half, gave me one half, and kept the other half for herself. We were married a year later.”
“Ms. Emily,” as Clyburn was called, spent 29 years as a medical librarian at the Charleston Naval Base and Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C. She was a philanthropist who raised money for students to attend her and her husband’s alma mater. Just last month, Rep. Clyburn announced that he and his wife established the Dr. Emily England Clyburn Honors College Scholarship Endowment by rededicating the $1.7 million they raised and donated over decades. And, as everyone in South Carolina knows, Ms. Emily was a force in her husband’s career in public service and a truth-teller. “I just wonder when you are going to stop talking about South Carolina’s problems and start doing something about them,” the congressman in his memoir recalled Ms. Emily telling him after a well-received speech at a conference in 1971. Today, Clyburn is the highest-ranking African American in Congress.
Juanita Abernathy was a hidden figure in the civil rights movement. She is credited with writing the business plan for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 381 days and turned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into a national leader in the fight for equality for African Americans. She and her husband Ralph Abernathy were best friends with King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Ralph Abernathy was King’s confidant, mentor and right-hand man. And he was by King’s side on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when a shot rang out.
At the Faith and Politics Institute’s civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama in 2017, I asked Juanita Abernathy to confirm a story that I had heard about what she did that fateful day. The audience at Alabama State University sat silently riveted as she recounted what happened when she got a call from Coretta Scott King, then gasped at what she ultimately revealed. For it showed a human moment by people most forget were regular people doing extraordinary things.
When she called me, she said, “I got a call that Martin had been shot. Can you go to Memphis with me?” I said, “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll meet you at the airport.” As we circled going into the airport, and our little children were in the backseat, the announcement came over, “Martin Luther King just died.” And my little children ... started screaming and hollering, “Oh God, Uncle Martin is dead!”I went on into the airport and Coretta was surrounded by the chief of police and a few other people and I said, “Well, we’re not going to Memphis. I’ll meet you at your house.” And I went on to her house while they comforted her. And I arrived there and I stayed that night with Coretta and I slept on Martin’s side of the bed. His sister Christine left about 11:30 and went home and it was just the two of us. I’ve heard that somebody said she stayed there all night, but there was only two of us in that house.We talked a little bit, but not long, about what had happened. And, finally we went to sleep. But it was a sorrowful day and the less you talk about something like that, that you feel, because you actually have time to get your thoughts together and think to yourself, and say your own prayers. You don’t need too much conversation when you were going through a tragic moment like that. So that was my experience that night. ... I stayed there for two or three days because my housekeeper was with my children and I knew they were in good hands.
What a privilege it was to have spent time with Juanita Abernathy and Emily England Clyburn. They were women of their time. Strong, opinionated, savvy and proud. They saw, sacrificed and endured a lot as they worked to make this nation more just, fair and free. Each was the foundation of her husband’s strength. They are owed our gratitude.
Thank you, Juanita Abernathy and Emily England Clyburn. Rest in power.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast