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At 80, Clyburn reflects on activism; congressman: Sustain civil rights efforts through voting
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At 80, Clyburn reflects on activism; congressman: Sustain civil rights efforts through voting


House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 27, in Washington.

Congressman Jim Clyburn celebrated his 80th birthday Tuesday, a milestone he is grateful to have achieved.

“I feel fine. I take an aspirin every day because that’s what the doctor says I should do,” Clyburn said.

“I still play 18 holes of golf every day that I’m home and can go, and every now and then I play 36 holes. I don’t hit the golf ball as far as I used to hit it. I’ve gone from steel shafts to graphite shafts because they told me that’s what I’m supposed to do, except for this past Sunday I played with steel shafts,” he said.

The octogenarian celebrated his birthday in a series of virtual parties, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Clyburn’s birthday also marks over 60 years of activism. He reflected on the changes he has witnessed since his days as an activist and his time serving in Congress.

He also spoke on the recent death of his friend, fellow congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis and the conversations they had about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“John Lewis and I were very, very close friends. We met in October 1960,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn recalled their time as activists and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“You go through life with all of that, and all of us met as a part of a movement. We were challenging the status quo. Sometimes you get a little bit concerned when you see the things that you were fighting against, all of a sudden they’re popping up again,” Clyburn said.

“You fight these battles, and you do so because you don’t want your children and your grandchildren to fight those battles. And then, all of a sudden, you look up one day and those challenges are still there. That’s the way John and I felt when we saw the Black Lives Matter movement breaking through,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he and Lewis recently had a conversation about the similarities they noticed between the SNCC and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We sat on the floor one day, it might have been the last time he was on the floor of the House, and we talked about that. The reason we were so concerned about it is because back in 1960 when we started SNCC, John became the chairman of SNCC in 1963. Three years later, he was kicked out of the chairmanship because an insurgency group came, and they didn’t like non-violence. They wanted to be really violent. In fact, their big refrain back then was ‘Burn baby, burn.’

“They took SNCC from us,” Clyburn said.

“So, people see this picture, so words don’t matter, people say ‘I see it.’ So, it’s a breakthrough moment for Black Lives Matter. Within two or three days, here comes some headlines ‘Defund the police,’” Clyburn said.

“So, John and I talked about it. I said ‘Hey man, this is what happened to us back in the 1960s,’” Clyburn said.

“‘Defund the police’ is a soundbite that could do to Black Lives Matter the same thing ‘Burn baby, burn’ did to SNCC, and that’s what he spoke out against and I spoke out against it,” Clyburn said.

“We were concerned about that. The difference now is, hopefully, that the people in the Black Lives Matter movement can look back on what happened in the 60s and hopefully not make those same mistakes,” Clyburn said.

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“We back in the 60s didn’t have much to look back on. We were just one movement,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he has studied the Black Lives Matter movement, classifying it as a civil rights movement.

“There’s always been a civil rights movement, so you’ve got to put an s on it,” Clyburn said.

“I call them civil rights movements. The Stono Rebellion was a civil rights movement, Denmark Vesey’s insurrection back in 1822 was a civil rights movement, the Niagara Movement that led to the creation of the NAACP, those were civil rights movements,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said that there must be an effort to continue the work of the movements.

“What we were doing back in the 1960s, that was just an iteration. Black Lives Matter is a civil rights movement. It’s a current iteration of a civil rights movement. But people have to understand John did his thing and left the scene at 80. The people in Black Lives Matter are doing their thing, and at some point, they will leave the scene,” Clyburn said.

“But, we will not ever get to be a perfect union, so that pursuit requires vigilance. If you look at the Pledge of Allegiance, it says ‘with liberty and justice for all,’” Clyburn said.

“What is the price of liberty?” he asked. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

“The question today is: Are we going to be vigilant or are we going to hang around for the moment? Vigilance requires that you challenge the status quo, but once you challenge the status quo, how do you sustain it? The only way you sustain it is you’ve got to get involved in the process,” Clyburn said.

“You’ve got to go out and register people to vote, you’ve got to go out and make sure people get to the polls and vote,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he plans to introduce legislation addressing some of the issues the Black Lives Matter movement has focused on.

The House passed legislation last week that would remove statues of Confederates and some other statues from the Capitol, including John C. Calhoun’s statute.

The bill says to the people of South Carolina, “if you want to be represented in this Capitol, you have to send somebody up here that represents you because we’re going to take John C. Calhoun’s statue out of this building. John C. Calhoun was one of the biggest slavery proponents the world has ever produced,” Clyburn said.

“I don’t like to see people out there tearing down statues. Let’s go through the process of removing them. Don’t have anybody arresting you for destruction of property. Let’s just do what we need to do to change the law and get rid of the statue,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he is also looking to introduce legislation regarding voters’ rights.

He called for passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020 “to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted several years ago.”

“I’m also pushing legislation that I’m going to get passed, to broaden my formula on 10-20-30. I’m also pushing legislation, and going to pass it, to put broadband in every home,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said his future also holds more tee times, spending more time with children and grandchildren and continuing helping Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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Staff Writer

Bradley Harris is a Government and Sports Reporter. The Irmo, SC native is a 2018 graduate of Claflin University and recipient of the 2018 South Carolina Press Association Collegiate Journalist of the Year Award.

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