By ALLISON HORTON
Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE — From meeting his wife while in jail to speaking with Martin Luther King Jr., South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn believes he’s been blessed throughout the experiences in his life.
He decided to share these life experiences in his memoir, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, which he will discuss Saturday during the South Florida Book Festival at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC). His friend, Congressman Alcee Hastings, will be on hand to introduce him.
“It is written to be a primer for young people,” Clyburn said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I used to teach 10th graders. I asked myself after every chapter, ‘Would they understand, learn a lesson and be motivated?’ That is what the book is all about it.”
Clyburn’s life makes him an ideal speaker for the festival, said Rinata White, youth services librarian at the AARLCC.
“He is a political force in the U. S. government,” White said in an email. “He embodies the aspect of raising the awareness of the contribution of people made by African Diaspora by being a pioneer.”
Clyburn was elected to Congress in 1992 and remains in office 22 years later. Throughout his career, he has helped the community in many roles: high school teacher, staff member to then South Carolina Gov. John West and as a congressman.
He was also active while a student at South Carolina State University, when he was arrested for taking part in protests during the civil rights movement.
“First time I went to jail was unnerving,” said Clyburn of the arrest that occurred on March 15, 1960. “While waiting to get bail, one of the co-eds from the school came into the jail with a hamburger in her hand. I hadn’t eaten all day. I was so grateful for that half hamburger I married her 18 months later.”
Clyburn and his wife Emily are celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary this year. They have three adult daughters, including Mignon, whom President Barack Obama appointed to the Federal Communications Commission.
In his book, Clyburn describes meeting King at Morehouse College in Atlanta with other students in October 1960.
“King had been preaching non-violence. I had been in jail and, at that point, Dr. King hadn’t been. A lot of us were, like, you’ve got to practice what you preach. You can’t tell us to go to jail and you haven’t been,” Clyburn said.
The following weekend, King was arrested in Georgia, which, Clyburn said, was the catalyst for John F. Kennedy’s winning the presidential election.
“John Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his sympathy,” Clyburn said. “Up until that point, Richard Nixon was given the lion share of the black vote. That is what swayed that election.
“King wouldn’t have went to jail if he had not met with us the weekend before,” Clyburn said. “John Kennedy would have never been elected president.”
Clyburn also writes in the book that he ran and lost three times before becoming elected to Congress. A friend told him that he’d had three strikes and was out. He sees a moral in that.
“You should never give up on your dreams,” Clyburn said. “If I had quit after losing the third time, I never would have become the No. 3 Democratic person in the House.”
His father’s favorite hymn, Blessed Assurance, was his inspiration for the title of the book.
“My father was a minister and he would prepare for his Sunday sermons by reading and writing all day Saturday,” Clyburn said. “He would always hum his favorite hymn. When I got stuck while writing the book, I thought about my dad and got the hymn notes. Reading the words, I saw what my dad got out of it.”
While speaking to students last week in Baton Rouge, La., Clyburn was pleased to learn they planned to study his book. Some school districts in South Carolina have put it on their “must read list.”
Clyburn hopes the book will motivate young people to voice concerns about the “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court and the “dismantling” of the northern district of Congresswoman Corrine Brown in a recent circuit court ruling.
“I don’t see any sense of urgency or outrage from black people,” Clyburn said. “These kinds of court decisions in 1870 are what led to the Jim Crow laws.”
“If we are not careful, we are going to relive that,” Clyburn said. “I’m afraid we are going to look back in 15 years and wonder what happened and it is going to be too late.”