Rep. Jim Clyburn has been here before, not only during the civil rights movement in the 1960s but also more recently, when Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot to death in North Charleston as he ran away from a white police officer on April 4, 2015. That was just two months before a white gunman murdered nine black worshippers in a Charleston church.
It was a low moment for the country, and now, in Clyburn’s eyes, things have descended even further. “Have we made any progress in the last five years?” he says. “I would have to really, honestly believe that there’s been more retrogression.”
In recent weeks, mass demonstrations have broken out across the country in protest of police brutality and structural racism in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. State and local governments are struggling to respond. Congressional action is uncertain. The president is flailing.
Amid the turmoil, Clyburn’s is an important voice.
Clyburn, 79, is a veteran of the civil rights movement. He was one of the early organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he first met Rep. John Lewis, and has been in Congress since 1993. (Clyburn also met his late wife, Emily, in jail for protesting.) As majority whip, he is now the third-ranking Democrat in the House. He is a force in South Carolina politics, and his endorsement of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential campaign was a decisive force in swaying voters in the state’s Democratic primary.
Vox spoke with Clyburn last week about his views of the current moment, how this compares to times past, and where he does — and doesn’t — think the path to progress lies.
Clyburn is outspoken about disagreements he has with those to both his left and his right. He worries the current protests risk being “hijacked” by more radical elements that could undermine the movement’s momentum and create backlash, which is what he feels happened with SNCC in the 1960s. He notes that after the 2015 killings in South Carolina, “nobody threw a single brick, nobody burned down a single building.”
But he also believes that President Donald Trump is to blame for much of the current chaos.
“What’s the difference? The difference is leadership,” Clyburn told Vox, referring to the reaction to the murders in South Carolina five years ago. “If Trump had been president when that had gone on, I think you’d be having back then what you’ve got now.”
“The current structure was built upon black folks being enslaved and white folks being free”
The day Vox spoke with Clyburn, he had just wrapped up a press conference with the Congressional Black Caucus and other congressional Democrats unveiling a new police reform bill. The legislation would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and put in place incentives for state and local governments to follow suit. It would also put an end to qualified immunity, which gives public officials, including police officers, immunity from civil lawsuits.
At the conference, Clyburn, who graduated with a degree in history, emphasized the significance of America’s racial context in thinking about the legislation.
“With few exceptions, white people came to this country willingly in search of a new world, full of liberty and justice for all. With few exceptions, black people came to this country against their will — chained, shackled — and came to these shores enslaved and stayed that way for 244 years. Think about how long that is, how many generations that is. It was a long time,” he said. “Eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s a long time to be on one knee. But for 244 years, there are plenty of knees on the necks on blacks who came to this country.”
In our conversation, he invoked the same anecdote. “That’s why we’ve got to restructure,” he said, “because the current structure was built upon black folks being enslaved and white folks being free, and we’ve got to restructure.”
The emphasis on “restructure” is important. On a conference call with Democrats in March discussing the coronavirus response, Clyburn said the moment was a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Some Republicans seized on his remarks as evidence Democrats were seeking to overstep in pandemic legislation to put other policy priorities in play. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to the remarks in a speech on the Senate floor. “This is not a political opportunity,” he said.
Clyburn is still irked by the episode.
“[The pledge of allegiance] ends with this country’s vision, ‘with liberty and justice at all.’ That’s the vision for this country. What I was saying on that phone call was that this is a tremendous opportunity for us to restructure this health care system to fulfill that vision, that’s what I was saying,” he said. “What the hell is wrong with that?”
He reiterated the policy point. “We’ve got a tremendous opportunity to restructure our health care system to be accessible for all, to restructure our educational system so our little children won’t lose a second year of school, to restructure infrastructure so that broadband will be as much a part of infrastructure as roads and bridges, to restructure our judicial system,” he said. “That’s what this is all about, to restructure. I’m not backing away from that. I don’t care what Mitch McConnell says.”
Clyburn’s 1960s experience shapes his view now
Clyburn’s version of restructuring is not as radical as it may seem at face value, including right now.
Amid the Floyd protests and renewed attention to police violence, the South Carolina Democrat has made waves with some of his comments. He has chafed at the “defund the police” movement, saying he worries the call will be coopted by political opponents and arguing that departments need to be restructured and reimagined. He has also expressed concerns that small groups of protesters who loot or destroy property will “hijack” the momentum around current reforms.
Part of Clyburn’s hesitation appears to stem from his experience during the civil rights movement and disagreements within the SNCC about tactics. In the mid-1960s, the group fractured over debates about its commitment to nonviolent tactics, and eventually, Lewis stepped down from its leadership and was replaced by Stokely Carmichael, who was more confrontational in his activism.
“John Lewis and I often talk about how SNCC got hijacked. We were getting off the back of the bus, we were sitting down at lunch counters, and all of a sudden, we woke up one morning, and there was a rallying cry all around us, ‘Burn baby burn,’” Clyburn said.
His feelings about the current protests appear to stem from his experiences then. “The same elements are trying to hijack this movement,” he said.
Beyond the remnants of decades-old tactical struggles, some Democrats, Clyburn included, have also expressed concern about the growing call to “defund the police.” While many of the ideas and reforms its proponents back are very popular, the slogan in itself is not. Activists point out that it is nuanced — and the idea means different things to different people — but Republicans appear eager to weaponize the call, regardless of the details.
Minneapolis’s city council has pledged to dissolve its police department and create a community-led public safety system in its place, which Clyburn said he believes is the right move. “They are right to close that department down. It’s a cesspool,” he said.
But he stressed that he doesn’t stand for defunding all police departments or for abolishing policing altogether, saying that he’s proud of the way many of his local police departments are run.
Clyburn’s pushback against the “defund the police” movement has garnered criticism. Just scrolling through the replies to one of his tweets about the matter, you can see the backlash. And the politics of black people, including black Democrats, is hardly a monolith. On the ideological scale, he ranks somewhere near the middle, leaning slightly more conservative, among congressional Democrats. Many younger black Democrats tend to skew more progressive than people of his generation.
The Congress member’s concerns appear to be driven, at least in part, by his own fears about the political implications of the phrasing.
“I think all of us know that sound bites tend to get interpreted in all kinds of ways, and if you’ve got to explain the sound bite, you’re losing the whole issue,” he told the Washington Post.
Clyburn links much of the current turmoil to the president
Wednesday, June 17, will mark the fifth anniversary of the Charleston church shooting. Clyburn and his daughter put together a video for the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation, a literacy organization founded in honor of one of the victims, and is participating in a Facebook Live commemorating the tragedy with the makers of Emanuel, a documentary about it. He still keeps in touch with some of the victims and their families. He has consistently pushed for the closing of the “Charleston loophole,” which allows gun dealers to sell firearms to people if an FBI background check takes more than three days; it’s how the gunman acquired the gun he used. Legislation that would accomplish that has stalled in the Senate.
Clyburn, who has repeatedly called Trump racist, connects some of the white supremacist forces that motivated the Emanuel 9 shooter to the 2016 election. “They wanted to turn the clock back, and they went to work on turning the clock back,” he said. “They succeeded in doing so with the election of Donald Trump, and from that time, things have been cascading downwardly.”
He recalled when after the Charleston shooting, then-President Barack Obama spoke at the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims, and sang Amazing Grace. He drew a contrast to the president’s reaction to the tragedies happening now. “The president started talking about snarling dogs and how much firepower he had to resist,” he said.
The president’s instincts to lean into division over unity have been on full display in recent months, during both the pandemic and now the protests. The president has cast blame on anyone but himself for the country’s failure to get a handle on the coronavirus, and now, he’s turned to lashing out at demonstrations, floating conspiracies that they’re organized by “ANTIFA” and seemingly fanning the flames of tensions.
For many Democrats, including Clyburn, wrangling back power from Trump and from Republicans in the Senate is a top priority.
At the top of our conversation, Vox asked Clyburn whether he was optimistic about the future. His optimism, he said, is tempered. For one thing, the US Senate is pumping through lifetime appointments for unqualified judges “only because they profess an ideology that goes contrarian to the founding principles of the country,” he said. But for another, his energy is tempered by the judgment he’s seeing from some on the left. He’d noticed some criticism online of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for kneeling in honor of Floyd’s killing and of Sen. Mitt Romney for joining a march over the weekend.
“All of a sudden, people start criticizing. And why are we playing their game?” he said, exasperated. “That’s Trump’s game. No matter what happens, Trump’s going to find some reason to criticize. And if you play that game on their turf, they win. So why are we playing that game? I don’t understand this, I really don’t.”
Clyburn has been on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years, and this is his second go as whip. He’s a political creature and a pragmatist. Some of his positions are quite progressive, such as his years-long push for the 10-20-30 antipoverty program, which requires that a minimum of 10 percent of federal resources for some programs go to communities with poverty levels of 20 percent or higher over the past 30 years. Others of his positions, at least today, are not. He voted in favor of the 1994 crime bill.
When asked whether he thinks the current turmoil will impact the 2020 election, Clyburn expressed uncertainty. “It all depends on whether the people of this country wake up,” he said.
Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden tipped the scales in the former vice president’s favor during the primary, will be an important surrogate in the weeks and months to come. While Trump is unpopular with black voters, winning some over at the margins could make a difference. Clyburn is worried about Trump’s attempts to appeal, specifically, to black men.
His message to them: “You see what the unemployment rate is for black people today? He asked what do you have to lose? Your job. You see what is going on with health care, what has he done to the Affordable Care Act? He’s cut 90 percent of the budget for navigators to try to help sign people up, he cut the enrollment period down from 90 days to 45 days. What do you have to lose? Your health care. He has just told you that he’s got these dogs waiting for you if you demonstrate, he’s called in the National Guard to keep you in check. What have you got to lose? Your freedom.”