Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

More Influential Figures

BOND: What about teachers in school? Any notable influences there?

CLYBURN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Agnes Hildebrand Wilson, you remember Bishop Hildebrand, his sister taught me at Lincoln High School. Just a tremendous influence. I remember my third grade teacher Mrs. Brockton; my fifth grade teacher is Mrs. Johnson. They all took tremendous interest in me for some reason and then I had a teacher -- I went to Mather. I graduated from Mather Academy and there was a teacher there, Edna Lukins, who had a tremendous influence on me. She was white, and taught me Bible. And one day she asked all of us to talk about what we wanted to do when we grew up, and I told her what I wanted to do, and it was all government and politics. And I told her I was going to go north, which is what everybody was doing in those days.

BOND: Because you couldn't do it in South Carolina?

CLYBURN: I didn't think I could do it in South Carolina. So that day after class, she asked me to remain for a moment and she came over to me. She says, "Look, you're going to college, but if you leave South Carolina, the gap's only going to get wider. Those of you who are privileged to go to college, you need to stay here and help things, improve things." That – that was tremendous. And, of course, I stayed on course. I went North for one week, but I never got over that, and so my wife and I got married in New Jersey on June 24th and July 1st we moved back to South Carolina, seven days later.

BOND: And been there every since?

CLYBURN: Ever since.

BOND: Now, what about other influences -- family, mother, father, teacher, other figures in the community who – ?

CLYBURN: My mother was just as influential in her own way. She is very independent, who had talked her father into letting her go away to high school. She grew up on a little farm in Lee County and nobody in her family had gone to high school and I don't know how she did this, but her father agreed to let her go to Camden, to Mather Academy, where she moved in with the Dibbles. You know that family?

BOND: Sure. Right.

CLYBURN: They were very prominent in Camden, and she sort of kept house, cleaned house and stuff, and they in turn paid her way to Mather Academy. And so my mom went on to college and then she took her degree and put it up on the wall in her beauty shop. And her thing was she wanted a college education, but she wanted independence that she could not get. Back then, the only thing she could do is teach school, and so she kept her beauty shop and by the time she died, my mother had seventeen operators in that beauty shop.

BOND: Really?


BOND: And from this, what lessons did you learn from her life?

CLYBURN: Well, I guess the most defining moment came -- there were two big moments with my mother. One came just after my now forty-two-year-old daughter was born. My mother came to visit us. We were living in Charleston at the time and she, after dinner, excused herself and told my wife that she would like for her to excuse the two of us. She needed to talk to me, and we went back into the empty bedroom of the apartment that I was living at the time and she said to me, she said, "Now look, you're married now and you're starting to raise a family. You need to get your family out of this apartment, buy a house, and make a home for them." And I said to her, I said, "Well, Mom, I'm going to do that just as soon as I see my way clear," and she looked at me and she said, "Son, let me tell you something. If you wait until you can see your way clear before you attempt anything, you will never get anything done."

I guess I've been in debt owing mortgages ever since, but that was a very, very defining moment for me and every now and then I think about how I want to do something, and I think about that. You can't wait until you see it through. If it's in your gut, launch it. Things'll work out.