How civil rights leader James Clyburn helped Joe Biden and Black America win the White House

Written by on November 21, 2020


Former Vice President Joe Biden posted a powerful victory within the South Carolina major, largely on the power of his help amongst black voters. USA TODAY

COLUMBIA, S.C. – James Clyburn sat at a desk in a slowly emptying ballroom on Election night, his chin resting on his proper fist as he sipped Jack Daniel’s from one glass and Eating regimen Coke from one other. 

He watched the massive display within the heart of the room the place MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Pleasure Reid introduced state election results. South Carolina, as anticipated, was known as for President Donald Trump. The group, sporting masks and unfold out throughout the ballroom, groaned. 

Within the days main as much as Election Day, the Home majority whip had campaigned throughout his residence state pleading with South Carolinians to observe his lead, to vote for Joe Biden and his working mate Kamala Harris. He known as on them to help a youthful technology in Congress who might take the lead.

There was a barbecue, a drive-in, a night rally, watch events, visits to polling websites and back-to-back interviews. It was an unforgiving tempo and a dangerous one for an 80-year-old Black man within the midst of a pandemic.

As a younger man, Clyburn had confronted down baton-waving sheriff deputies so the following technology of African Individuals might sit at any lunch counter, store at any division retailer and go to any faculty. Now, right here he was once more, making an attempt to make America reside as much as its promise of a simply nation. 

He was troubled by racial divisiveness ripping on the nation’s material, the novel coronavirus crippling Black and brown communities, the nation’s poor getting poorer. He feared one other 4 years below Trump.

The latest deaths of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, his friends and fellow civil rights legends, made extra pressing the necessity to prepared the following technology of leaders.

At stake was the goodness of the nation. 

“This ain’t about me. It is about my youngsters, it is about my grandchildren, and all others which are equally located,’’ mentioned Clyburn. “It’s all in regards to the future.”

Within the ballroom, Clyburn’s telephone buzzed. He checked out his iPhone 11 and clicked the inexperienced settle for button earlier than moving into the corridor.

It was Joe Biden, calling to thank him.

“I might by no means be on this place, however for you,’’ Clyburn heard him say.

“You’re fairly welcome,’’ Clyburn answered.

It wasn’t wanting good. Trump had an early lead, together with in key battleground states. 

Clyburn walked out the ballroom simply previous midnight abandoning half-empty glasses.  He remained hopeful America would select a distinct path.

“I didn’t anticipate for it to be that tight,” Clyburn mentioned. However “I by no means thought we had been going to lose.” 

A renewed battle for civil rights 

Two days earlier than Election Day, Clyburn stepped out of a black Suburban sporting well-worn Adidas sneakers and a T-shirt that learn, “VOTE.” Contained in the O was “SC State College 1896,” for his alma mater, South Carolina State College.

Clyburn pulled up his darkish blue masks emblazoned with the phrases “Majority Whip J. Clyburn.” 

The scent of fish frying stuffed the air, a nod to a Clyburn marketing campaign custom.

A gaggle of reporters thrust tape recorders towards his chest and requested about Biden’s prospects. “He is performed a lot better in South Carolina than anyone thought he would,’’ Clyburn informed them.

Clyburn is credited with serving to revive Biden’s struggling marketing campaign earlier this 12 months. Simply days earlier than South Carolina’s major, Clyburn gave Biden his coveted endorsement, serving to him nail a decisive win and offering his marketing campaign unstoppable momentum. 

Exterior the neighborhood heart in Hollywood, a small city close to Charleston, Clyburn labored his manner via the gang. Some posed for photos. Others swarmed in like he was a deacon bearing excellent news.

“Optimistic’’ by Sounds of Blackness boomed within the background.

Clyburn grew up in a detailed household within the small metropolis of Sumter.

In 1960, he and Lewis had been each 20 years previous when they met at the organizing meeting of the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a pressure within the civil rights motion. As a university pupil, Clyburn helped lead greater than 1,000 college students dressed of their Sunday finest on a march downtown for a sit-in at segregated lunch counters.

It was considered one of many instances when Clyburn’s activism landed him in jail. He was locked up when he met a fellow demonstrator and his future spouse, Emily England. They’d be married 58 years with three daughters, Mignon, Jennifer and Angela, earlier than she handed away final fall.

In 1992, Clyburn was elected as the primary African American to serve in Congress for Georgia since Reconstruction. A wall in his management suite within the U.S. Capitol is lined with Black men who represented South Carolina in Congress within the late 1800s. 

In his 27 years in Congress, Clyburn has pushed to revive a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, advocate for extra funds for traditionally Black faculties and universities and work to protect civil rights landmarks and tradition, together with the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Hall Fee in Johns Island, South Carolina. 

With the latest passing of Lewis, Clyburn mentioned some colleagues see him because the “ethical conscience of the Congress.’’ 

He desires others to fill that position.

“What he’s doing now isn’t just making ready, however ensuring the following technology of leaders are over-prepared for the second,” mentioned Antjuan Seawright, a political advisor for Clyburn.

It had been months since Clyburn commonly campaigned in individual. The pandemic had sidelined him. He misplaced a 79-year-old cousin, Almeta Sinclair, to COVID-19 in April.

With Election Day approaching, Clyburn ventured out.

“God retains his angels protected,’’ Seawright mentioned. “There’s little question that Jim Clyburn is considered one of God’s closest angels.”

On this Sunday, Clyburn was campaigning to get extra Democrats in Washington, together with South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison, who was running for the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who was making an attempt to maintain his seat.

Clyburn hoped a victory for Harrison, a former aide and protege, over GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally, would ship a sign that vitriol rhetoric and racial divisiveness weren’t acceptable, not solely within the South, not within the nation.

“We are going to see a New South that’s daring, that’s inclusive, that’s numerous, the place all of our voices are valued and heard,” Harrison repeated in his stump speech.

Clyburn, who pushed for a Black lady to be on Biden’s ticket, additionally knew what it could imply if Kamala Harris received as the primary lady vice president-elect and the primary African American and Asian American to serve within the position. Her run had generated help from a military of Black ladies, together with his personal daughters and granddaughters. 

Clyburn was pushed to remain on the marketing campaign path by what he noticed because the unraveling of the nation.

It bothered him that individuals needed to take to the streets over police brutality and inequities, a lot like he and others did in the 1960s. 

He was indignant the federal authorities hadn’t performed sufficient to assist Black and brown communities who’ve been disproportionately arduous hit by the novel coronavirus. He heads an oversight panel on COVID.

Clyburn has complained about Trump’s efforts to strip away provisions of the Reasonably priced Care Act, his assaults on mail ballots and his dealing with of the COVID 19 pandemic.

“Now we have a president who has determined that it’s way more essential to win a political argument than to offer security and safety for all our residents,’’ Clyburn informed the gang in Hollywood.

“Amen,” some shouted again.

After the speech, Clyburn received again into the Suburban manned by his safety element for a 25-mile journey to North Charleston. He did not have time to eat his fried whiting sandwich.

His subsequent occasion was a drive-in rally to stump for Biden, Harrison and Cunningham. Clyburn dominated out climbing onto the again of a black pickup truck serving because the stage. He was too previous for that, he informed the gang.

Parked on the entrance row, Nichole Inexperienced waved her Biden/Harris signal via her sunroof. She had waited for Clyburn to announce who he would endorse for the state’s major earlier than deciding on a candidate.

“Once I heard it, I used to be like, ‘OK, right here we go…That was the stamp of approval,” mentioned Inexperienced, 46, a former director of the Outdated Slave Mart Museum in Charleston.

Cunningham mentioned Clyburn’s backing issues.

“It speaks volumes to have him out right here and to be shoulder to shoulder with this big in historical past,” Cunningham mentioned after the speech. “I don’t know if there’s any greater endorsement in South Carolina.”

Along with his closing marketing campaign occasion performed for the day, Clyburn climbed into the SUV and headed residence.

‘Restoring the goodness’

Early on Election Day, Clyburn’s Suburban pulled as much as the polling website on the Greenview Park Group Recreation Heart in Columbia.

He strolled over to a ballot employee stationed on the door. The lady, sporting a blue Hillman Faculty sweatshirt, stood because the congressman neared. Sharon Hanks knew him as “Mr. Clyburn who used to fuss at me.’’

“You don’t even know who I’m,’’ Hanks mentioned as she pulled down her surgical masks.

“Oh, Lord,’’ Clyburn mentioned.

“Jim and Vivian Davis’ daughter,’’ she mentioned.

“Sure!’’ he mentioned. “How’s your mother doing?”

Inside, ballot employees paused from consuming lunch to greet Clyburn, bumping elbows and chatting about their households.

“You make me proud!’’ a girl shouted. 

For Clyburn, neighborhood means serving to others just like the Bible taught him. The son of a minister and chairman of the Democratic Religion Working Group, Clyburn mentioned his religion is on the coronary heart of each vote he casts and each determination he makes, together with why he helps Biden. 

“He’s mainly only a good, respectable man,’’ Clyburn mentioned. 

“This marketing campaign is all about restoring the goodness of the American individuals,’’ he mentioned. “This nation’s greatness is below menace as a result of we’ve had a scarcity of goodness within the White Home.”

He was impressed by a favourite gospel tune, “Stand” by Donnie McClurkin. “When there’s nothing left else to do you, simply stand,’’ the tune says.

Clyburn had a want checklist for Biden’s administration. 

Deal with the lethal virus was on the prime. 

Subsequent, he desires a presidential fee to review the impression of the 1986, 1988 and 1994 crime payments that despatched hundreds of Black individuals to jail over drug convictions. 

“You have to ask your self, ‘How is it that a youngster in South Carolina can find yourself in jail for 20 years for doing one thing that is authorized in Colorado and another states,’’ Clyburn mentioned. 

He additionally desires extra broadband companies in rural communities, neighborhood well being facilities and help for his program aimed toward decreasing poverty. He needed a plan to offer protected consuming water, enhance sewage programs and develop power sources. 

These insurance policies, Clyburn mentioned, would assist heal racial tensions pushed by a scarcity of financial alternatives.

“Individuals really feel they’re being left behind,’’ he mentioned. “When individuals see that everyone has a seat on the desk, everyone advantages from the financial system, then they don’t need to blame the opposite individual.”

Getting Black voters to the polls

Polls had been slated to shut in just a few hours. Clyburn sat in his marketing campaign headquarters in Columbia decided to get more Black voters to help Biden. 

A Trump win, he mentioned, would finish the nation’s pursuit of a “extra excellent union.”

His workplace had been transformed right into a studio, with two folding tables, two black umbrellas and a studio mild. 

Clyburn did a fast interview on Fox Information. He hopped on a name with a Black-owned gospel station the place he urged listeners to vote earlier than polls closed. “It’s very severe,” he warned.

There have been extra interviews: MSNBC, NPR, a British information station.

Clyburn turned down a request from one other gospel radio station. He didn’t like that he was informed he couldn’t speak about a specific candidate. They don’t do this for white visitors, he complained.

In between interviews, Clyburn scrolled via his telephone studying information stories. One polling website in North Carolina had an influence outage and shut down for 45 minutes.

Site visitors was gradual in a single precinct in Philadelphia as a result of most individuals there had already voted. “That’s an excellent factor,’’ Clyburn mentioned to no one specifically.

On his desk was an virtually empty bottle of water and books: “The Disgrace of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Education in America,’’ by Jonathan Kozol and “On Her Personal Floor: The Life and Occasions of Madam C.J. Walker” by A’Lelia Bundles. 

Clyburn’s communications director Hope Derrick informed the congressman he was invited to cease by the watch social gathering on the state Democratic social gathering headquarters. 

Clyburn nodded, however first he had a video name with the NAACP and voters.

“I can’t go till I end,’’ he mentioned.

His efforts wouldn’t be sufficient. 

On Election night time within the ballroom, Clyburn staffers rushed over to his desk and whispered in his ear. The Related Press had known as the Senate race. Harrison had lost his bid to unseat Graham.

Clyburn’s press staff shortly packed up their laptops. The safety element moved into place. The boss needed to talk at Harrison’s watch social gathering throughout city.

As soon as there, Clyburn informed Harrison supporters he could have misplaced the competition, however the younger politician was nonetheless a winner. He had run a aggressive race, generated curiosity amongst younger individuals and set the stage for future races. The competition confirmed cracks within the state’s GOP armor. 

However Cunningham had additionally misplaced, leaving Clyburn once more as the lone Democrat in the South Carolina delegation.

With that actuality settled in, Clyburn stayed up late that Friday to listen to what Biden would inform the nation. Clyburn was “rattling drained.” Biden was supposed to talk at eight p.m. He began close to 11.

“You already know what three hours out of the lifetime of an 80-year previous is?” Clyburn mentioned.

Nonetheless, he listened to Biden promise, “We’re going to win.”

The following morning Clyburn turned on the tv whereas he made waffles and sausage for his household.

Anchors promised bulletins in regards to the race. However they’d made these guarantees earlier than. Clyburn determined to go on his common weekend golf outing together with his buddies.

He was on the 15th gap when a member of his safety element hurried over to inform him the race had been known as. Clyburn stored enjoying. 

“I used to be main. I used to be profitable all the cash,’’ he mentioned with amusing. 

One other officer came visiting and informed him Zoom calls had been being arrange at residence. He needed to depart.

Clyburn would later study Trump had additionally been on a golf course when information of Biden’s victory broke. “I used to be having a greater day than he was,’’ Clyburn mentioned.

On the experience residence, Clyburn thought in regards to the challenges forward, together with getting laws via Congress and onto Biden’s desk, particularly if Republicans maintain management of the Senate.

He puzzled if Biden and GOP Senate chief Mitch McConnell would work collectively. That they had served collectively within the Senate earlier than Biden served as vp to President Barack Obama. 

“I am hoping that their relationship will probably be such that he’ll deal with Biden higher than he handled Obama,” Clyburn mentioned.

He was proud that just about 80 million Individuals voted for Biden, however disillusioned almost 74 million forged ballots for Trump. 

He wasn’t stunned the nation was so divided. He grew up within the Deep South the place he was banned from consuming at whites-only lunch counters. He served in Congress with former segregationists. He heard Trump say there were “fine people on both sides” after white supremacists paraded via Charlottesville, Virginia, with torches in 2017 and a protester was killed.

“This nation has been divided ever since 1619. This nation had 244 years of slavery. That’s 10 generations. After which we went (via) one other 4, 5 generations of apartheid,’’ he mentioned. “You have got a president who has exploited the racial animus on this nation. It’s in opposition to Black individuals. It’s in opposition to brown individuals. It’s in opposition to Jews. Anyone who ain’t like him. That’s a actuality. If I am going round getting mad about that I’ll be mad all day, day-after-day.” 

In upcoming days as Biden names his top staff and cabinet picks, Clyburn received’t be on the checklist. He was re-elected Wednesday as the bulk whip. 

Clyburn inspired colleagues jockeying for these posts. However he wasn’t .

That is my final job, he informed them. 

Comply with Deborah Barfield Berry on Twitter at @dberrygannett

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