It’s been nearly a year since Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Issues of oppression are still thick in the air with rhetoric from the presidential race fomenting yet more division.
KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman spoke with Civil Rights stalwart and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn in advance of a planned address at a Democratic Party of Arkansas event Friday evening in North Little Rock.
KAUFFMAN: Over the past year or so there’s been a comparatively vigorous national discussion about issues of race & police violence. It’s a conversation that’s ebbed and flowed but in Arkansas it’s mostly ebbed. You are working to get a Reconstruction era National Monument established while in Arkansas, the state is unable to shed a joint Martin Luther King Jr.-Robert E. Lee holiday. What do you make of an uneven social consciousness in the nation on these issues?
CLYBURN: The nation has always been uneven when it comes to discussions of race. All of us are quite aware the entire economy of the country is built upon race. Slavery was as much about economics as anything. Today, the remnants still persist more severely in some parts of the country than others.
I find it interesting how we symbolize sovereignty in some sections of the country, one particularly. Holidays like Robert E. Lee or Confederate Memorial Day, the flags we design and fly, all seemingly to hold on to a past that probably should never have been there in the first place.
But, we have to deal with things as they are and not necessarily as we would like for them to be. People get caught up in this Gone with the Wind mentality that seems to prevail. We all would like to worship unknown things rather than facing what is real. The day will come, probably in the distant future, when all of us will get behind us but it won’t be in my lifetime.
KAUFFMAN: Anyone who lived during the Civil Rights Movement can tell you how divided and vicious life could be but from today’s vantage point nearly everyone in authority shows great admiration and allegiance to its deceased icons. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement though…some call it a logical extension of those past struggles while others have no problem demeaning it and discrediting it. What parallels are fair to draw between the two? Are they worthy of a shared sense of identity?
CLYBURN: Oh, yes absolutely. I find it interesting people who are not aware of the 60’s would not remember or know that King was vilified. Martin Luther King Jr. was vilified throughout the country. He didn’t meet his untimely death out of any kind of love. It was hate. I was part of the organizing body of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. [U.S. Rep.] John Lewis and I first met in 1960 as a part of that effort. We were vilified. There were people in my own family, in the church that I grew up in that did not support what we were doing.
People look back on that now and it’s glorified in the movie Selma. John Lewis is lionized in the Congress and elsewhere around the country. Martin Luther King Jr. is revered and quoted by people who would have spat upon him back in the 60’s. That’s just the way we seem to be.
When people are no longer a threat of challenging who and what we are we tend to celebrate them. Black Lives Matter is no more onerous to me than SNCC was back in my day.
KAUFFMAN: What does it mean then about people who can so easily, particularly public figures, so easily compliment someone like Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil Rights Movement but reject Black Lives Matter?
CLYBURN: Because Black Lives Matter is here and considered by them to be a clear and present threat to their levels of comfort. When things come and you see them as a threat to everyday existence we have a problem with them.
I remember back in the 60s, talking about Trump today, I don’t see a whole lot of difference between what Trump was saying but times are different. I saw a Senator from Virginia [George Allen] literally lose his reelection because he referred to an East Indian in a derogatory manner that most people have never heard of. When you listen to what Trump is saying today, what that Senator said pales to what Trump is saying today. But times are different and people have different threats and they are excusing those things today in the name of political correctness but it’s got nothing to do with politics.
KAUFFMAN: Most Republicans on the national scene and most in Arkansas as well, talking about Donald Trump, will be pretty clear and say they disapprove of the tone of Trump and reject the comments, some even call the comments racist but they will still endorse him anyway as the Republican nominee. What does that say to you, that someone could reject someone offering racist commentary but still support someone as a presidential candidate?
CLYBURN: I don’t get overly carried away by people’s expressions. It’s how they conduct themselves that’s controlling as far as I’m concerned. In fact, it’s Biblical. You’re known by your deeds and not your words. As a kid we were taught very early to insulate ourselves from language, even when there’s an insult. I still remember my grandmother…though my mother didn’t buy that…used to say sticks and stones may break my bones but words would never harm me.
We were taught not to respond to spoken words but to act upon deeds. So when people tell me that what Trump says is racist yet I’m going to support him, it’s your deeds, that to me means you condone what he said. You wouldn’t vote for somebody unless you condone their policies.
KAUFFMAN: You of course have the honor to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for South Carolina. Much of the state, like Arkansas, happens to be overwhelmingly conservative though. As you think about speaking to Democrats in Arkansas what would you say to them is the role of a Democrat in a deeply red state? There’s always a tendency to be more conservative.
CLYBURN: I tend to believe there’s nothing wrong with conservatism. My father is very conservative but he was not a racist. My father believed that we should conserve energy and save our money but he never asked his congregations to give offerings conservatively, he asked them to give liberally.
There is no way or conditions that should control a being. There are times when we ought to be conservative and times we ought to be liberal. I think those of us who are involved in politics have the burden of getting people to understand that.
KAUFFMAN: U.S. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, he’ll be speaking at a Democratic Party of Arkansas event on Friday, thanks for your time.
CLYBURN: Well, thanks for having me.