Image: Jim Clyburn
Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP file
Congressman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks in Sumter, S.C., on Oct. 26, 2006.
By
msnbc.com
updated 4/17/2007 2:00:59 PM ET 2007-04-17T18:00:59

Measured in terms of volume and visibility, Al Sharpton has pushed himself forward as the Democrats’ kingmaker of the hour in the African-American community.

But the ’08 presidential candidates know who the real man to see is in the black community: Rep. Jim Clyburn.

A soft-spoken, 66-year-old South Carolinian, Clyburn began his career as a student leader of lunch counter sit-ins in the early, dangerous heyday of the civil rights movement. Clyburn’s endorsement could be a key to victory in the Democratic contest shaping up next year.

South Carolina has always been a pivot point of American history, and will be again in this presidential race. The reason is its central racial and economic place in our country’s struggle to square the rhetoric of equality with the realities of life.

The “states’ rights” crusade was invented there. The plantation economy reached its apogee there. The Civil War began there. The Dixiecrats and the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, George W. Bush and Karl Rove were born there.

The fish fry phenomenon
Now there is a new chapter, embodied by Clyburn.

A popular congressman who represents the old cotton belt south of Columbia, he is the leading African-American figure in a state where blacks make up the vast majority of the voting population in the Democratic primary.

He is the acknowledged leader of that vote; his annual summer Fish Fry has become the South Carolina Democrats’ equivalent of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and the food is much better).

So it is no surprise that Clyburn has engineered the first debate among the Democratic contenders . It will take place on April 26th at his alma mater, South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, a school with a history that is itself emblematic of an important epoch in civil rights history.

In 1960, Clyburn was among the student leaders who, in concert with others in North Carolina, led sit-ins that led to their arrest and eventually, the integration of higher education across the South. In 1968, three SC State students were killed in a gun battle with police, stemming from student protests against a segregated bowling alley.

If you talk to Clyburn today, the anguish and strife of those years are far in the distance, but not totally gone.

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He was the son of a minister who was an early activist in the NAACP; young Jim, at the age of 12, was a youth leader of the organization.

At what was then South Carolina State College, Clyburn hooked up with other leaders of historically black colleges to stage symbolic sit-ins aimed at embarrassing businesses into desegregating. They tended to pick outlets of national chains for whatever economic leverage they could get; the locals responded by arresting the student protestors.

It was at the Courthouse for a hearing in 1960 that Clyburn met his wife, Emily, a fellow student but not one of those who had been arrested.

“We had been in jail all night, and they hadn’t fed us all day,” he told me. “I was standing there and I said to nobody in particular `boy am I hungry.’ There was this little 95-pound person standing nearby. Next thing she is back with a hamburger. She offered it to me, then pulled it back. She tore it in half, gave me one half and kept the other half for herself. We were married a year later.”

And remain married 46 years later.

A leader of the SNCC
Clyburn was a leading member of the famous (to many alarmed Americans at the time, the infamous) SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Other SNCC greybeards include Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who with Clyburn, is a leading member of the Democratic majority in Congress.

A student of history – he used to teach it in high school – Clyburn is fully aware of the flow of time and change of which he is a part. In the early 1960s, he said, the state’s newspapers refused to cover the student activism among blacks; the news would simply have been too outrageous for their readers to comprehend.

Now Clyburn is not only covered, but also lionized for the most part.

After running – but not winning – a seat in the state legislature in the early 1970s, Clyburn paid his dues in state government as an expert on civil rights and race relations, channeling what he had learned at the lunch counters into policy. He was elected to Congress a decade ago, and has become the first racial cross-over leader of consequences in South Carolina since Reconstruction.

Obama seeks Clyburn's advice
Now he looks at the 2008 race – and the all-important South Carolina Democratic primary – through the lens of that history. All of the candidates have been calling him for years; Sen. Barack Obama sought Clyburn’s advice many months before declaring his presidential candidacy.

There are those, Clyburn notes, who criticize Obama’s lack of direct connection to the Civil Rights movement and, because his father was African, Obama’s familial distance from “the struggle.”

“I don’t think that is valid,” Clyburn said. “The whole point is we marched so that people like Obama – and my own daughter, who is his age – would not have to. That was our goal. There is more to do, but that was our contribution.”

Bill and Hillary Clinton are friends of long standing too, and Clyburn has ties of one sort or another to all of the contenders. He’s even close to retired Sen. Fritz Hollings, who, as governor in 1960, saw to it that Clyburn and his brethren were arrested.

“Fritz and I laugh and kid about it now,” Clyburn says. “He reminded me that he didn’t use any dogs or water cannons.”  Recently Clyburn was greeted officially at a ceremony in at the state capitol, where Civil War-era bullet holes have long been left intact in the masonry as evidence of the harshness of Gen. Sherman’s “March to the Seat” through Columbia.

Who will he endorse?
Will Clyburn endorse a candidate? Early in 2004, he endorsed his House colleague and leadership friend Dick Gephardt, which would have helped Gephardt had he survived Iowa. This time Clyburn is hanging back, at least until the debate ( broadcast live on MSNBC and streamed on MSNBC.com ) and perhaps until the primary. As a history buff, he knows that there are precedents galore in the Democratic field: a woman, a Hispanic, an African-American.

But I have to say – and this is just a guess – that he sees something of himself in the candidacy of Barack Obama.

He said that he had told Obama not to worry about the “struggle” part of the equation: merely being an African American running for president is both a glorious opportunity and a struggle enough. “As of now, and probably all the way to the end, I won’t endorse,” he told me. “I guess if it comes down to one or two by the time of the primary, and I think I can make the difference, maybe I will.”

In other words, his mind is made up – until he changes it.

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