37 years later, Clyburn makes it to S.C. legislature

On election night in 1970, James Clyburn went to bed comfortable that he had won a South Carolina state House seat by 500 votes. He awoke to learn of a different result. Someone moved a decimal point, it seemed, and he had lost by a margin as narrow as the one he thought had secured his victory.

Sensing foul play, a Charleston, S.C., newspaper reporter phoned the longtime civil rights activist and pressed him on the overnight reversal. Clyburn wouldn’t bite.

“I just didn’t get enough votes,” Clyburn told her.

On April 10, 2007, 37 years after his defeat, Clyburn (D) will reach the South Carolina state House, making history as the first black congressman to address the General Assembly since Reconstruction.

That’s primarily because he is the first black congressman elected in South Carolina since Reconstruction. The invitation to speak is generally reserved for presidents and such notables as the Rev. Billy Graham.

“I’d hoped to start my career in that body in the ’70s. It’s going to be interesting to finally get there,” Clyburn said in a recent interview.

The request stems not from Clyburn’s status as a racial barrier-breaker, but because he has achieved the highest rank in the House of any South Carolina legislator in Congress. He said he believes the idea came from senior state legislators who attended his swearing-in last January.

“I think they saw it as being a historic event for our state,” Clyburn said.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) noted that the speech will come just after Clyburn proved his mettle by rounding up the votes to pass a war-spending supplemental that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by September 2008.

 “I’m glad to see him get the recognition in South Carolina that he’s earned in Washington, D.C.,” Spratt said. “Jim has become a master craftsman at what he does.”

Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.), who served as Ways and Means chairman in the state House before coming to Congress, applauded the selection.

“Very few people have been afforded that honor,” he said. “It speaks well that South Carolina has someone who is basically third-in-command in the House.”

In the interview, Clyburn discussed potential topics for his address in broad terms.

“I’ll talk about my vision for the state” in areas including healthcare, economic development and the environment, Clyburn said. He hinted that he might touch on how the state’s farming economy could grow switchgrass and sugar beets to convert to ethanol.

 “The rural parts of our state are well positioned to play a part in energy independence,” he said.

Some suggest Democratic presidential contenders may listen closely to Clyburn’s speech as they consider how to win his support in the crucial South Carolina primary. Clyburn, an architect of the primary, usually keeps his powder dry until late in the contest.

 “Clyburn is the man to go to,” Spratt said. “Having James’s support would be critical.”

Clyburn, of course, landed on his feet back in 1970. The day after the state House race, a Charleston paper bore the banner headline, “I Just Didn’t Get Enough Votes.”

John West, who had just won his race for governor, saw the story while en route to the coast for some rest. He drove to a pay phone, called Clyburn and offered him a job. Clyburn became the chairman of the state Human Affairs Commission, on which he served until he won his congressional race in 1992.