Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The History Teacher Presents the Day's News

BOND: When you're in this bowling alley running these classes, organizing these leagues, and people began to come to you to ask you things, what are they asking you?

CLYBURN: Well, they all knew I was a school teacher. And I was teaching history in a public school that was just about four or five blocks from this bowling alley, so a lot of the parents of these students and their aunts and their uncles and just friends would be coming to the bowling alley. And of course they would introduce themselves as being, you know, Mary Jane's mother or somebody's aunt, and I taught history different from the way most people.

I taught history based upon what was happening in the news. If I pick up the newspaper in the morning -- for instance, I was teaching in 1962 during the Cuban crisis. Well, to me, you can't talk about the Fertile Crescent when all this stuff was going on down in Cuba, so when I got to school that morning, we had to turn to Chapter 22 because it was the chapter on Cuba. I don't remember exactly what chapter it was, but it was somewhere, and that's the way I would teach. Well, the students were just enamored with all of this, and so I would be teaching from the history book to the newspapers, or from the newspapers back to the history book, and they would be talking to their parents about all of this.

And so here I was in that bowling alley almost every afternoon with the parents of the same people, of the kids that I'm teaching during the day and so they would start raising the issues with me, the sit-ins -- they were not really sit-ins -- they were really demonstrations at that time. If you recall, the March on Washington took place. I was teaching at the time and people wanted to know about that. We had real caustic confrontations taking place in Charleston at the time. I remember the police chief was attacked and everybody ran to the bowling alley. And people knew from my discussions that I had been a part of SNCC, and SNCC at that time was very popular, especially with the students on Charleston's east side and it was just--they would ask me about current events and about things that were happening, and how to do certain things or not. And it was just current events kind of stuff.

BOND: So, you became known as an interpreter of current events?

CLYBURN: Absolutely.

BOND: In effect, an interpreter of the day's news?

CLYBURN: Absolutely, absolutely.

BOND: So, what would they ask? What would a typical question be, or I guess none are typical?

CLYBURN: Well, there were just, you know -- this was when people were first starting to run for office. I mean, black people were first starting to run for office. We didn't elect our first black to City Council there in Charleston or to any office -- it was City Council, in this instance -- until 1969. I think '68 was County Council down in Beaufort, but all of the voter registrations taking place and all of the March on Washington had just taken place, and, you know, I had been involved in the sit-ins. And there were just questions about the challenges taking place to the system.

And the way I was teaching school, a lot of people thought I was going to get fired because I was teaching about all those things and how those things relate to what they were doing, or what the kids were doing. The thing that really got me was when Sister Mary Anthony ran a little neighborhood house right across the street from the school. It was Catholic Charities-sponsored. One day she showed up at my door at the close of the school day. I didn't teach but three years. She asked me would I stop by her place across the street, because she wanted to talk to me about something. And she explained to me that the kids who came to the neighborhood house, she would overhear them talking, and she noticed that a lot of these kids were big class cutters, but they would never cut my class. And so she wanted to really get to know me, because here were kids who would not show up for school until it was time to come to my class and then when my class was over, they'd just leave the school grounds.

And so we got to know each other real well and I started hanging around the neighborhood house helping the kids with whatever they wanted to do. And it was just talking to them about life and talking to them about difficulties. I would tell them, "Look, I know what it's like to sleep three in a bed." Because a lot of these kids just didn't think of their school teachers as having had their same experiences and though my parents were under those standards back in 1950s may have been considered to be middle class, in the overall scheme of things, we were not wealthy by any means. I mean, we were poor. I mean, we didn't -- we had independence. We were insulated from the system. A lot of the stuff was just happenstance.