Relentless, Despite Losses: Congressman's Climb To The Hill
It took years for Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina to become who he is today: the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.
And those years included many failures. During a visit to StoryCorps, his granddaughter Sydney Reed, who was 10 at the time of the recording, asks Clyburn a personal question: "Have you ever felt you wanted to quit?"
"Oh, absolutely," Clyburn, 72, responds without hesitation.
He flashes back to 1970, when he won a primary race for the South Carolina House of Representatives. Clyburn celebrated with a huge party after the votes came in. Everyone was jumping up and down with excitement, he recalls.
"But the next morning, I went into the bathroom and there, on my sink, was a little note from your grandmother," Clyburn tells Reed.
"When you win, brag gently. When you lose, weep softly," he recalls the note reading.
"And I thought that was kind of interesting. And I stuck it up on the mirror in the bathroom," Clyburn says.
That November, when the general election rolled around and the polls closed, news organizations rushed to announce that Clyburn had won. But the next morning — at 3:30 a.m. — Clyburn awoke to sour news.
Visitors at his front door told him that something had gone wrong at the courthouse. He made his way down to the building, where he was told that he didn't win by 500 votes; he had lost by 500 votes.
"The next morning when I went to my bathroom, I looked up at the mirror, and I wept softly. And yes, I thought then that this was the worst thing [that] could possibly happen," Clyburn says. "But later on that morning, I determined that I was going to go forward."
In 1978, Clyburn decided to run for South Carolina secretary of state, but he lost. When he tried again eight years later, he lost again.
"More than one person said to me, 'Well, that's your third strike,' " he says. " 'What are you going to do next?' And I always said, 'Three strikes may be an out in baseball, but life is not baseball.' "
In 1992, he ran to represent South Carolina's 6th Congressional District. This time, he won.
"I don't know, there was just something that kept telling me that you've got to stick this out," Clyburn says. "And you know, we have a state seal in South Carolina, and the Latin phrase on the seal says Dum Spiro Spero — 'While I breathe, I hope.'
"And I've always felt that there's hope," Clyburn says. "And so I have never given up."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Anita Rao.
StoryCorps Bonus: Animated Video
In this short, Carl McNair remembers his brother Ronald E. McNair, a South Carolina native who was a laser physicist and the second African-American in space. Ron died with his fellow crew members when the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff 27 years ago.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. This is the project that has recorded interviews in all 50 states, and we've heard hundreds of stories from all sorts of people. But until now we've never heard a member of Congress in this series. And on this first day of black history month, we're going to hear from U.S. Representative James Clyburn. He's a Democrat from South Carolina. He is the highest ranking African-American in Congress and he sat down for StoryCorps to talk about his career with his granddaughter, Sidney Reed.
SYDNEY REED: Have you ever felt you wanted to quit?
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN: Oh, absolutely. When I first won in 1970, when I won the primary for the South Carolina House of Representatives, there was this big party after the votes came in and everybody was jumping up and down and very happy. But the next morning I went into the bathroom and there on my sink was a little note from your grandmother.
And the little note said, when you win, brag gently. When you lose, weep softly. And I thought that was kind of interesting. And I stuck it up on the mirror in the bathroom. So we go into the general election in November and when the polls closed that evening around 10:00, all the news media announced that I had gotten elected, that I was going to be a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
About 3:30 in the morning, somebody rang my doorbell and they told me that something had gone wrong down at the courthouse. And I went down to the courthouse and they told me rather than winning by 500 votes, we have determined that you have lost by 500 votes. The next morning, when I went to my bathroom, I looked up at the mirror and I wept softly.
And yes, I thought then that this was the worst thing could possibly happen. But later on that morning, I determined that I was going to go forward. In 1978 I ran for secretary of state and lost. Eight years later, in 1986, I ran for secretary of state again and lost. And more than one person said to me, well, that's your third strike.
What are you going to do next? And I always said, three strikes may be an out in baseball, but life is not baseball. And so in 1992, I ran for the United States Congress and this time I won. I don't know, there was just something that kept telling me that you've got to stick this out. And you know, we have a state seal in South Carolina, and the Latin phrase on the seal says Dum Spiro Spero - while I breathe, I hope.
And I've always felt that there's hope, and so I have never given up.
INSKEEP: Congressman James Clyburn with his granddaughter Sydney Reed at StoryCorps in Columbia, South Carolina. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress and you can find a podcast; also watch a new StoryCorps animation that also takes place in South Carolina at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.