By MATT BAI Of NY TIMES
Published: August 6, 2008
Forty-seven years after he last looked out from behind the bars of a South Carolina jail cell, locked away for leading a march against segregation in Columbia, James Clyburn occupies a coveted suite of offices on the second and third floors of the United States Capitol, alongside the speaker and the House majority leader. Above his couch hangs a black-and-white photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Charleston, with the boyish Clyburn and a group of other men standing behind him onstage. When I visited Clyburn recently, he told me that the photo was taken in 1967, nine months before King’s assassination, when rumors of violence were swirling, and somewhere on the side of the room a photographer’s floodlight had just come crashing down unexpectedly. At the moment the photo was taken, everyone pictured has reflexively jerked their heads in the direction of the sound, with the notable exception of King himself, who remains in profile, staring straight ahead at his audience. Clyburn prizes that photo. It tells the story, he says, of a man who knew his fate but who, quite literally, refused to flinch.
On the day in early July when Clyburn and I talked, Barack Obama, who is the same age as one of Clyburn’s three daughters, had recently clinched his party’s nomination for president. Clyburn, who as majority whip is the highest-ranking black elected official in Washington, told me that on the night of the final primaries he left the National Democratic Club down the street about 15 minutes before Obama was scheduled to speak and returned home to watch by himself. He feared he might lose hold of his emotions.
“Here we are, all of a sudden, in the 60th year after Strom Thurmond bolting the Democratic Party over a simple thing, something almost unheard of — because he did not want the armed forces to be integrated,” Clyburn said slowly. “Here we are 45 years after the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Forty years after the assassinations of Kennedy and King. And this party that I have been a part of for so long, this party that has been accused of taking black people for granted, is about to deliver the nomination for the nation’s highest office to an African-American. How do you describe that? All those days in jail cells, wondering if anything you were doing was even going to have an impact.” He shook his head silently.
This time, however, a lot of the old activists stood in the path of an African-American’s advancement rather than blazing it. While Democratic black voters embraced Obama by ratios of 8 or 9 to 1 in a lot of districts, the 42 House members in the Congressional Black Caucus, for a time, split more or less down the middle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the country’s leading black ministers and mayors trended toward the Clinton camp. Clyburn himself declined until the very end to endorse a candidate in this year’s primaries, saying that his leadership role required him to remain neutral, but he made no effort to disguise his relief at having been able to invoke that excuse. “Being African-American, sure, my heart was with him,” Clyburn told me. “But I’ve got a head too. And in the beginning my head was with Clinton. The conventional wisdom was that this thing was going to be over in February.”MORE