So when he speak in his district, or across the state, it's a good idea to pay attention. This week, he was at South Carolina State University for a two-day conference on the civil rights movement, co-sponsored by Richland School District 2. As part of his intended topic for discussion, relationship-building, he delivered a lesson in South Carolina history.
Clyburn served as the featured speaker during a Friday morning session in the auditorium of the university’s Fine Arts Center. Clyburn said the conference was important and highlighted a “strain of resistance” that still exists in the state.
“I think it’s still there,” said Clyburn, who referenced the early beginnings of the university as a land-grant institution, one whose development was resisted by the state.
S.C. State’s beginning was based on the passage of the First Morrill Act of 1862, which permitted states to receive federal support in the form of land to establish colleges or universities. As prescribed by the Act, land-grant institutions were mandated to teach agriculture, military tactics and mechanical arts. In 1890, Congress passed the Second Morrill Act. This provision inspired the creation of the nation’s 17 historically black land-grant colleges, also known as 1890 institutions. The Act required that states in the then-segregated South establish institutions of higher education for blacks.
“South Carolina State is an 1890 school. When these land grant institutions were first established, South Carolina was resistant to establishing the school. The reason the school is here is because the Methodist Church gave the property. That’s how the school got next to Claflin,” Clyburn said.
“It’s a strain of resistance to all things federal in this state. That’s what you get when you see people who say they don’t want to accept federal dollars. It is all about anti-federal government. That still exists in significant numbers of people and, I think, too many people.”
Clyburn's absolutely right, and a full series of lectures could be made on that singular point: South Carolina resists all things federal.
Funny thing is, it wasn't always so. South Carolina's delegates to the Constitution Convention supported -- LOVED -- the idea of a nation united under a federal system, so long as they believed they could control or influence it. That sentiment remained until the Tariff Act of 1828, when they realized that not everyone honored their sense of superiority. Suddenly, South Carolina's ruling elite felt they were being penalized as a minority by a Congressional majority sympathetic to northern manufacturing interests.
Isn't that a hoot? Cotton planters -- plantation owners, our aristocracy -- loved the federal government until they felt like a minority whose interests weren't being protected, and then they turned on the government. As early as that year -- 1828, when the Constitution was only 41 years old-- South Carolinians began talking about secession. If they could not control the nation, they'd rather not participate in it.
Want to hear another odd fact? Not all whites agreed with this sentiment. South Carolina voters in 1852 -- which meant white men who had money and land -- voted not to secede from the nation if seceding meant South Carolina would be alone. And to put the cherry on top of this point: Eight years later, when secessionist fervor had struck its height after the election of Abraham Lincoln, no new referendum was held to check voters' present views on secession. Why not? Because if voters once again opted against secession, secessionists among South Carolina's ruling elite class wouldn't have had a leg to stand on.
Lesson: Better to deprive the proletariat of their voice than to have them speak and embarrass you. Ah, sweet South Carolina.
With his love of history, Clyburn makes a great story himself.
Clyburn, who was elected president of his youth NAACP chapter at age 12, recalled his early days in the struggle for civil rights. In 1960, he was among the student leaders who, in concert with others in North Carolina, led sit-ins that resulted their arrests and the eventual integration of higher education across the South.
He was chosen as the star witness in an Orangeburg civil disobedience case defended by the late Matthew Perry, South Carolina’s first African-American federal district judge and a S.C. State alumnus. That case developed from the arrests of 388 college students. Clyburn was later jailed during the march on the state capitol that resulted in the landmark breach of the peace case, Edwards v. South Carolina.
“This conference is a good thing because I think that so many of the problems that we have in our relationships with each other is that we have not learned to really get to know each other, to understand each other and the background experiences that I think are important to what made this country what it is today,” Clyburn said.
“The extent to which we learn to appreciate each other’s contributions to the overall order of things will determine how successful we’ll be as a nation,” he said.
Clyburn said the divisiveness in Washington across party lines is no different than the divisiveness exemplified in earlier history, including with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Strom, whose ancestors and heirs, legacies and legends are woven indelibly into the tapestry of our state. Striving for some element by which to inscribe his name into national history, he chose race hatred -- knowing that if his biracial daughter's existence were to become known, there would never have been a local school superintendent, governor or senator by his name.
“There is no more divisiveness in Washington than it has been historically in this country. ... There are certain things we don’t like to talk about in this country” including race, he said. He said he never thought he’d see an African-American president in his lifetime, noting that race still matters because some issues involving Barack Obama “have a significant race element to it, and we know it.”
Clyburn said the creation of a “more perfect union” in the United States will be an ongoing process.
“That’s in our Preamble to the Constitution and what we’re working on every day,” he said.
Dr. Larry Watson, an associate professor of history at S.C. State, said the conference was important because there is an overall “lack of understanding” of the Civil Rights Movement.
“As teachers of history, we’ve come to understand and recognize that a lot of the history of the Civil Rights Movement is not being taught to today’s students,” Watson said. “They have a lack of understanding of it. The Civil Rights Movement is a very complex movement, and a lot of our teachers are not adequately prepared to teach it.”
He added, “We view this conference as a means to reach out to teachers to learn more about the movement, gain more resources and take advantage of the immense amount of primary sources that are still available in terms of pictures, music and living testimonials.”
Thank you, Dr. Watson and Representative Clyburn.