By ERIN ALLEN
For those gathered in the Library’s Montpelier Room on Feb. 4, a history lesson of sorts awaited them, courtesy of U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C. As the keynote speaker for African American History Month, the congressman was to speak about his take on the 2009 theme, “The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas.”
“Not only has he taught history, but he has made history,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in his introduction.
Clyburn is the first African American from South Carolina to serve in the U.S. Congress since 1897 (George W. Murray, a Republican, served 1893–95 and 1896–97) and the first black adviser to a South Carolina governor since post-Reconstruction. He has also served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and is currently House majority whip.
“I grew up in Sumter, S.C., which was near Summerton, where Brown v. Board of Education actually got started,” he said.
Clyburn was referring to Briggs v. Elliot, the first filed of the five cases that were combined into Brown v. Board of Education, the school desegregation case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’m in the Library of Congress, so I want to keep history accurate,” he smiled.
He went on to discuss the beginnings of the landmark racial desegregation case. Before Briggs, Levi Pearson—with then-NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall as his attorney—was brave enough to bring a lawsuit against the school district for failing to provide transportation for his three children, who lived nine miles from their school. That case was thrown out on a technicality.
“Pearson’s farm was partially in the school district, but his residence was out, so the case was thrown out,” said Clyburn. “So, Harry Briggs, a service station attendant who made $23 a week, and his wife Eliza affixed their names to the lawsuit.”
“They paid dearly,” he added, “as both lost their jobs and had to move to Florida for a time.”
In 1992, when Clyburn was running for Congress, he traveled through Summerton while campaigning.
“Eliza Briggs would often fix breakfast for me in the kitchen of the church where all this started,” he said.
Now, more than 50 years after the case that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools, Clyburn harkened to another historical moment—the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. “When Obama became president, I got to experience the moment with my daughters and grandchildren,” he said. “My eldest daughter, Mignon, was crying; I had never seen her show such emotion before. She is usually so stoic.”
The day before the inauguration, CNN got the rights to air the full Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech—which took place 45 years to the day before Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. The network wanted to film Clyburn and his family watching the broadcast, which would be the first time for many of the younger generation to see it.
When the reporter got around to questioning Clyburn’s grandkids following the broadcast, “there was a long silence and I got real nervous,” he said. “Surely they had seen it [the speech] before.”
Clyburn’s grandson told the reporter he had seen excerpts of the speech but had never seen or heard the whole thing. During his presentation at the Library, Clyburn then recited a section of the famous speech that his grandson admitted to never having heard before the CNN broadcast:
“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
“I read this part because after speaking to my grandkids, the reporter turned to my eldest daughter and asked what she thought,” said Clyburn. “Mignon holds a banking and finance degree from the University of South Carolina—a school that wouldn’t accept me and in a state that wouldn’t allow her grandfather to get his high school diploma.
“She told the reporter she was reflecting on the statement about ‘insufficient funds’” and the “great vaults of opportunity,” he continued. “It occurred to her that last November, we finally discovered the combination to the vault. Now that it’s open, we will put its contents to good use.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.