Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

A Personal Link to Brown

BOND: Congressman Clyburn, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

CLYBURN: Well, thanks for having me.

BOND: We appreciate your being here. I want to begin with a few questions about Brown v. Board. You were just shy of fourteen years old when the decision came down. How'd you hear about it and what did you think at the time it was going to mean?

CLYBURN: Well, I remember I was on Bartlett Street on my way home from then-Lincoln High School. I lived out what we called West Liberty and I remember we were doing double sessions at the time. Somebody'd run to the door yelling that the Supreme Court had made its decision. The backdrop to all of that was my father was a minister and I recalled almost every morning at breakfast him praying for Reverend [Joseph] DeLaine and all the petitioners over there, and so we got really sort of connected to it. So when that decision came down, we thought that this was it. Come September we'd no longer have double sessions; we'd no longer have ragged hand-me-down books or workbooks that were already filled in. We would be going to school in an integrated fashion and getting the same type of education everybody else was getting. Well, naivete I guess.

BOND: I guess, but I'm guessing that because Reverend Joseph DeLaine was such a known figure in black South Carolina, and the Clarendon County case was a well-known thing that it may have been more immediate to you than many of the other people we've interviewed in this series.

CLYBURN: Oh, absolutely.

BOND: Because it was personal to you.

CLYBURN: Oh, absolutely. I was only twenty-two miles away. Sumter, where I grew up, was just twenty-two miles from Summerton where all this was taking place and, of course, my father being a minister and my mother who was a beautician, they were all independent of the system, so to speak, and very active. In fact, I was elected president of the NAACP Youth Council when I was only twelve years old and all of that was connected with Brown because this was like 1952 when I got elected Youth Council president and, of course, you know, the whole Briggs-DeLaine efforts were a backdrop to all of that.

BOND: And you said a second ago that you thought that by the fall you'd be throwing away those secondhand books and be in a brand new school?

CLYBURN: Absolutely.

BOND: What did it turn out to mean?

CLYBURN: Well, you know, when I think about that period between May 17, 1954, and the 1970 when we final got the edict from the Justice Department that we were going to integrate schools in South Carolina, it's really almost a blur as it relates to education, because the focus got turned almost immediately to public accommodation. By the time I got to South Carolina State, we were then involved in other more direct action kinds of things, leaving it up to the NAACP and the courts to figure out when and where integration would take place.

BOND: Now, in 2003, you wrote, "In South Carolina today the state accepts it should provide a public education but not necessarily an adequate education," and you listed the great disparities between state spending on black and white schools, so that was a year ago, and I'm guessing that's still the case in South Carolina.

CLYBURN: It is still the case, and the court case, trying to justify the inequities in the expenditures is still taking place. Oddly enough, in Clarendon County is where the setting for all of this is taking place. Now, the big issue is over rural versus urban. These are rural school districts that are petitioning for equitable funding. The problem, of course, is that in many – most of those rural school districts they are majority black and, in some instances, all-black, because it's in these areas where white kids left the schools and went to private academies, and so what you've got here, though – it's a rural versus urban setting. It has racial adversities to it.

BOND: Now, aside from the actual way it turned out, what did it mean to you over these years? What did Brown -- what did the Court speaking in this way, what did it mean to you?

CLYBURN: Well, I'm almost emotional about Brown because not only did it define a lot of my breakfasts growing up, but it also helped to mold the way I approach things in political life. That's why I was just beside myself when I got the opportunity to get the Congressional Gold Medal for the principals in Briggs because I happened to know the history of Brown, and I spent a lot of time with my friends trying to make sure they get it right. Most people don't get it right, because the case, as you know, if it had been listed chronologically it would have been Briggs because Briggs was the first one filed in South Carolina, and but for a little quirk it would have been Pearson, because Levi Pearson two years earlier filed the first lawsuit.

And so I've just been really studying this stuff all my life, and so when I got the opportunity to get the Congressional Gold Medal for Levi Pearson and for Harry and Eliza Briggs and Reverend J. DeLaine, I jumped at the opportunity because whatever it is that I am, I think that this effort in Summerton, South Carolina, still drives my emotions more than anything else that I know.