Sixth District Congressman James Clyburn said Aug. 6 that South Carolina should be proud of its role in Civil Rights history, and that both a recent exhibit and plans for a permanent home for the Civil Rights Center for History and Research are steps in the right direction.
“What the University of South Carolina is trying to do with the Civil Rights Center is so important,” Clyburn said. “It will help our young people know how they fit into this. It will help them know that there is a reason for them to be proud of their state. We need to get our decision-makers in this state to get over their schizophrenia, and to really deal with these issues as they should be dealt with, and to take our rightful place.”
The center, a joint project of University Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences, was established in November 2015 with the receipt of Clyburn’s congressional papers.
Clyburn’s remarks came during the keynote address for a ceremony celebrating Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement, an exhibit that opened in February at USC’s Hollings Library. The exhibit is set to close this Friday, Aug. 9.
The exhibit documents the broad story of the state’s civil rights battles with numerous pictures, press clippings and artifacts. Individual displays cover the Briggs v. Elliott integration battle — which would lead to the dismantling of segregation — as well as the 1961 Friendship Nine sit-in in Rock Hill, USC’s 1963 integration, and numerous demonstrations, strikes and boycotts spanning well over a half-century.
In his remarks, Clyburn suggested the state’s role in civil rights has too often been obscured. He pointed to the case of Sarah Mae Flemming, the black maid who in 1954 took Columbia’s segregated public transit system to court — a full 17 months before Rosa Parks did the same in Montgomery, Alabama.
“I loved Rosa Parks,” Clyburn said, “but she did not integrate public transit. A South Carolinian did.”
Clyburn offered a modest assessment of his own role in the state’s civil rights movement, when he was one of hundreds of students jailed for protesting segregation during a 1960 march through Orangeburg.
He was “at a certain place at a certain time,” he said, as were many of the people featured in the exhibit.
“Circumstances — most of which they had absolutely nothing to do with — drove the situation to a point where they just happened to be there. It’s how we respond to those things as they come that determines whether or not they will be successful;.”
Clyburn said he himself was chosen by defense attorney (and later the state’s first black district judge) Matthew J. Perry as a star witness in the Orangeburg case because he was the least likely to suffer. His parents — a minister father and a beautician mother — were not dependent on the white community.
“I was insulated,” Clyburn said. “It had nothing to do with me.”
Likewise, Clyburn said his first campaign for political office was successful largely because people knew him through his family.
“It’s important for young people to know that we all stand on shoulders,” the congressman said. “What is important for us to do, when those opportunities present themselves, is that you do that which you should.”
USC History Professor and Civil Rights Center Director Bobby Donaldson said the Justice for All exhibit has brought expressions of “shock, surprise and awe” from attendants, especially those who were involved in the movement.
“It’s been an affirmation,” he said. “Yes, we did that, and we can point to a photograph or a letter that indeed highlights that important fact. Also, a lot of people had forgotten some of these details, and so we have been able to remember some of those aspects of the past.”
Donaldson said finding a home for the Civil Rights Center is still in the search phase. One possibility involves restoring the Booker T. Washington High School building, which is owned by USC.
“That would require significant resources,” Donaldson said, “but as that evolves we’re still committed to doing the programming and teaching the research behind it.”
Clyburn was asked earlier in the evening if, after his years in state and national politics, the slow progress of civil rights ever discourages him.
“I never get discouraged,” he said. “I’m often disappointed.”
The pendulum typically swings left to right and back again, he noted, and that will continue to happen.
“The only question I have is, ‘What will the cost be?’” Clyburn said. “I know we are going way out to the right, and I know it’s going to go back left. But how many lives are going to be lost in the meantime? How detrimental is it going to be? Will we have gone so far right until we can’t make it up? That’s the danger. No, I don’t get discouraged. I stay disappointed.”