Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

More Mentors: Maynard Jackson & John West

BOND: Now, I don't want to get too far ahead of the story, but I notice that you spoke movingly about both Maynard Jackson when he passed and Governor John West when he passed. What about these two men?

CLYBURN: Maynard, it's kind of interesting. Maynard – when I ran for office in 1970, I don't know why, but we wanted to have this dinner to raise some money. I was getting ready to run for the House of Representatives, and we were thinking about a big name. Maynard, at the time, I think, was maybe vice mayor of Atlanta and we issued him an invitation and asked him would he come speak, and he came. Came to Charleston. The old Fort Sumter Hotel. We had this big thing down there. My mother and father all came. It was four or five hundred people and no black person had ever done anything like this in Charleston before, and the next morning Maynard needed to go to Columbia, and so I drove him to Columbia.

I had a little '69 Mustang without air conditioning. We got in that car and, you know, Maynard that day filled up the whole passenger side of the seat and his voice just resonated through that car and we had a conversation that day, some of which I have never talked about and will only write about, but here's this guy who was bigger than life almost. His voice, it was just -- and he -- I don't know, it was a great experience for me. I don't know what I would've thought of him had I never taken that ride with him, but I just got emotionally attached to Maynard. I always was. And so when he died, it was like a little bit of me died, because he spoke that night just about things in general. He didn't know me. Got to know me a little bit in that automobile ride which was an hour and a half, two hours, and we stayed in touch over the years. Even when he was no longer mayor and out in the business world, we stayed in touch, and it was a loss for me when he died.

BOND: What about –

CLYBURN: John West.

BOND: Yeah, Governor West.

CLYBURN: John West was interesting. You never know why things happen, and I never knew -- I ran for the House in 1970; West was running for governor. I met him in 1969. I'll always remember the day I met him. It was August 16th, 1969. That's the day my second daughter was born. John West accepted my invitation to come and speak at the groundbreaking for a self-help housing program that I was doing in Charleston County and when he got there, he told me after the program, he said, "Explain to me what you're doing here," and so I explained to him exactly what the concept of the program was and what we were doing. This was out in Allen - Adam's Run, South Carolina. Young's Allen - outside of Charleston. He said to me, he said, "I really like this idea." He said, "I'm going to run for governor next year. If I get elected, I want you to consider coming and working for me." Well, that next year he ran, and then I ran for the South Carolina House. Won the primary. Nobody expected me to win. I ran a very populist kind of campaign. There was a former school teacher there that the students really liked and they all got him up running my campaign.

The morning after the primary -- all of this gets to how my wife gets into some of this -- the morning after I had just won, we had this great victory, I went into my bathroom the next morning and there on my sink was a little note from my wife and the note read, “When you win, brag gently and when you lose, weep softly,” so that note had a tremendous impact on me. By the time I left the house that day, I had toned down a little bit, but that fall in the general election, I was announced the winner around ten o'clock in the evening. About 3:30 in the morning, my doorbell rang and it was a reporter saying, "You better get down to the courthouse, something's gone wrong." So I get down to the courthouse and Emily went with me and we found that they said rather than being a 500-vote winner, I was a 500-vote loser.

BOND: How'd that happen?

CLYBURN: Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows exactly what happened. They told me that somebody forgot to carry a one in doing some additions or something. I don't remember what it was. Nobody would really explain what really happened, but that next morning when I went into my bathroom I wept softly. But that next afternoon I went up to New York to chill out with a friend, and the next morning his phone rang and it was John West on the phone. And so he came to me and says the man says, "John West is on the phone," but he was almost trembling. He couldn't believe that, so I went to the phone and John West told me that he wanted to talk to me and asked would I stop through Columbia on my way back to Charleston, and so I flew back into Columbia a couple of days later and we met. He told me he wanted me to come work for him and I declined. I told him "I don't think I could do that." I thought that my politics was a little more activist than he would be willing to tolerate. He looked at me and he said to me, and I'll never forget this, he says, "Jim Clyburn," he says, "If I were black with as much on the ball that you have, I'd be much more militant than you are."

BOND: Oh, really?

CLYBURN: I was a little bit embarrassed by that, but I got my second lesson – big lesson – in politics that day. When I stepped out of his door, his press person told me "You've got a phone call." I said "A phone call? Who knows that I'm here?" I figured nobody knew I was there but Emily and she would be waiting on me to call her, but then I thought maybe she was calling. I went and picked up the phone and it was a newspaper reporter who said, "Well, are you going to do it?" Well, great lesson in politics. While I'm saying no to the governor, this guy gets up -- Phil Gross who's a great friend of mine now. He goes out, calls the reporter, and gave me a real lesson in politics and he said to me, he said, "Well, you cannot say no to the governor." Well, that was the headline the next day. I was going to work for the governor. And he was asked about that. I'll never forget, because a lot of people saw me as being a little more militant than they thought South Carolina would tolerate and a reporter, I think his name was Hugh Gibson, I'll never forget, asked John West about his appointment of me and John West's reply was "We do not leave our wounded on the battlefield." I was the only Democrat that had lost in Charleston that year.

BOND: And so you maintained the relationship with West until he died?

CLYBURN: Oh, Lord, yeah, absolutely. Very close relationship. We visited often, on the phone, in person. Emily and I spend Christmas on Hilton Head every year and John West moved down there after the governorship and so during the Christmas holidays we would visit with him and Lois, but during the year we'd be on the phone all the time, we'd have lunch together occasionally. Any time I needed shoring up, I would get a little note from him or phone call from him.

I never forget, when I got ready to run for Congress we had lunch and he told me he thought that [I] really ought to do it. And just before making the announcement, my youngest brother had some public difficulties that called into question, in my mind. John West called me early the next morning and started talking to me about the race, and I said to him, I said, "Well, Governor, I'm not too sure I'm going to do this now." I says, "The headlines, I've been there. I'm not too sure I need to do this." He said to me, he said, "You know" -- he always called me Jim Clyburn as if it were one word -- he said, you know, "Jim Clyburn," he says, "life would be so simple if we did not have siblings and children." He says, "When're you going announce?" And the rest is history.