House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn shares his experiences, inspirations and insights at the 2021 Gov. Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum

November 10, 2021 - Karessa Weir

Three days before the 2020 presidential primary in South Carolina, U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn still hadn’t endorsed a Democratic candidate. His famous fish fry for campaign workers attracted more than 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls but Rep. Clyburn wasn’t ready to make that tough choice between people he respected and considered friends. 

His wife, Emily, told him “if we want to win this election, we better nominate Joe Biden.” And she had never missed calling an election. This confirmed Rep. Clyburn’s decision but he hesitated to announce it until he went to a church funeral service and was called over by an elderly lady, he said. 

“She said ‘I want to ask you a question: who are you voting for?’ I leaned over and whispered ‘Joe Biden.’ She threw her head back and her arms up and said ‘This community is waiting to hear that from you,’” Clyburn said. He called his staff, set up a press conference and endorsed Biden who went on to win the South Carolina primary and a majority of those in Super Tuesday. 

“We got to create a movement,” Clyburn said. 

First elected to Congress in 1993, Rep. Clyburn is the Majority Whip and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has served as Assistant Democratic Leader, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. 

The son of a fundamentalist minister and beautician, Rep. Clyburn, 81, calls himself a historian. He has written two books and keeps both the Bible and the biography of Harry Truman at his bedside. On Monday at the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theater, he shared many stories of his life and reflected on the current state of the country.

“All of my experiences have not been pleasant but I consider them all blessings,” he said.

Rep. James Clyburn and Gov. Jim BlanchardBegan by Gov. Jim Blanchard in 2015 and housed in the College of Social Science, the Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum has brought esteemed national and international leaders, diplomats and writers to inspire students and future public servants. First to speak at the 2021 forum was Dr. Corwin Smidt, chair of the Department of Political Science, who introduced the student speaker and emphasized the importance of the forum.

“Students, now more than ever, need inspiration and encouragement. The Blanchard Public Service Forum has done that,” Dr. Smidt said.

Social Science Scholar Wisdom Henry, a History and Urban and Regional Planning senior, introduced Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, calling her “my personal inspiration.”

“It is an honor to be in a room with so many public servants including the incredible Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” Henry said. “Events like this are important to me and my student body.”

Gov. Whitmer in turn introduced Gov. Blanchard and referred to Rep. Clyburn as an inspiration who has fought for families since the 1960s.

“His life story is legendary. He has spearheaded strikes and sit-ins,” Gov. Whitmer said. 

Rep. Clyburn and Gov. Blanchard

In his introduction, Gov. Blanchard called Rep. Clyburn a “president maker” for his timely and powerful endorsement of President Biden.

“On that day, he became the most important person in the world. He decided who would be the next president of the United States,” Gov. Blanchard said. 

Along with sharing stories of meeting his wife in jail after being arrested for civil rights protests, Rep. Clyburn reflected on the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 when Trump supporters overran the U.S. Capitol Building. Rep. Clyburn was evacuated from the Capitol to an undisclosed location and watched events unfold on the television.

“When we realized we could not get the National Guard to respond that’s when it got real. We’ve got to investigate it thoroughly. It is much more serious than meets the eye even to this day. We are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “None of us expected Jan. 6. I am 81 and I never thought I would see anything like Jan. 6.”

But Rep. Clyburn has great hope for the future and his guiding philosophy remains the same since the 1960s. No matter what fault lines are in our country, making basic needs accessible and affordable to all will repair those faults, he said. 

“Whatever greatness this country yields, I am challenged to make it accessible and affordable to all. Once that has been achieved, all other issues will go away,” Rep. Clyburn said. “We are all one big family and we need to row the boat together.”

Rep. Clyburn and Gov. Blanchard

Photos by Gary Shrewsbury for the Blanchard Public Service Forum.