Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

A Vision to Rectify Past Wrongs

BOND: Let me go back to vision. What is your vision? What is your vision? How does this guide what you do?

CLYBURN: Well, I would have to say that my vision of leadership is what I have to do. Probably it's grounded in a little memorandum that I read when I was in the governor's office. It was not meant for my eyes. Remember, I went into the governor's office in 1970. Well, the election was 1970; we took office in January of '71, but somewhere in that year of 1971, I came across a memorandum. If you recall, the southern states were beginning to try and make themselves attractive for industry to relocate, from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt kind of a movement. And they were all trying to work out how you do this with these tax breaks and everything else. Well, one of the consultants that had been hired by officials in South Carolina had written a memorandum that I came across by accident, and the memorandum was advising the leadership of the state in their search of industry to steer prospects away from certain counties. There were about ten to thirteen counties on that list. Of the counties on that list, when I got elected, I think ten of them were in my district. There's something common about those counties. Those were the majority black counties in South Carolina. The theory laid out in the memorandum is that black people are joiners and one of the attractions is this is a right-to-work state and in order to keep the unions out, steer the industry to these other counties, away from these counties.

Now, I have never ever forgotten about that memorandum. It was only two years ago when I started talking about it, because my role, I believe, is to rectify that. Now, no matter what it is that I do, it's all focused on trying to rectify what happened over so much time to those counties. Most of them are in my district. Williamsburg County I have; any given month the unemployment is 17 percent. Marion County, 17, 18 percent. I'm talking about three and four times the national average you'll find in these counties. Water and sewage, roads and bridges; none of that's there.

Now, a lot of people may see their roles as being policy. I see my role as trying to make the policy work for everybody and so if there is a vision, a big picture out there, it is to make the quality of life in these areas -- most of which are in my congressional district, a lot of them aren't -- as good for the people who live there as it is for everybody else and so sometimes it's creating a water agency and I'm not talking about a little community water project. The water project I'm working on now is the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency is a $150 million water project that will cover six counties. It is too big for a lot of those elected officials to even think about, but we're already $35 million into the project. We're getting ready to break ground on it. Now, to me, when that happens, it is going to kick start an improvement in the lives of people there that they just -- a lot of them can't see now. And so it takes some doing because this is a bit much. They're used to looking at a 200-customer water project and I'm trying to get them to look what could be a 50,000-customer water project. So, it's a problem, but that's the kind of stuff that I'm doing and that's just one of the instances.

BOND: In this particular interest, you have a vision that's radically different from the vision of these small local officials.

CLYBURN: Absolutely, absolutely.

BOND: It's not because they're bad people and you're a good person, it's just different.

CLYBURN: It's just different.

BOND: Now, in the Congress, with these 435 people, there've got to be people whose vision is radically different from yours?

CLYBURN: Absolutely.

BOND: And just opposed to yours.


BOND: Can you respect someone --


BOND: -- who's just diametrically opposed to what you're doing who sincerely believes that you're wrong, he or she's right, your ideas are nuts, their ideas are great. How do you approach that person?

CLYBURN: The same way I approach everybody else. This may sound strange to a lot of people, but I chair a steering committee that's trying to build an International African-American museum in Charleston, but I'm helping Congressman Henry Brown with his Hunley museum. He wants to do a museum around the Hunley [a Confederate submarine]. I don't have a problem with that. Our history is what it is. I don't believe that we can in any way prosper by denying that our history's what it is. What we have to do, I think, is overcome it, do what we can to rectify it. You can't change it. I mean, that's what it is. You can't change it. So how do we make it work for us? And so going forward, we can, and so I'm that way.

I play golf with a lot of members of Congress whose vote I cancel out every day, but when we're on the golf course we'll find a way to accommodate each other and that's what I do. I don't have to really agree with you. I tell people all the time, my wife and I cancel each other out at the polls a lot. We don't necessarily see politics the same way.