Civil Rights

James Clyburn and Tim Scott can lift up black America in 2017

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On May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls led a black crew that turned a converted cotton ship called The Planter over to the Union, becoming one of the heroes of the Civil War.

Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, opening the military up to African-Americans.

While piloting Union forces on 17 engagements with his mastery of the South Carolina Sea Islands, Smalls would also be a delegate to the 1864 Republican convention, advocating the passage of the 13th Amendment, which South Carolina ratified in November 1865.

{mosads}Smalls would win election to the House of Representatives for the first of five terms in 1874, lose a contested race in 1878 and serve in the House again from 1882 to 1888.


Equally tough and savvy is James Clyburn, who has served as a representative from the same state since 1993 and has been described by President Obama as “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”

In the next Congress, Clyburn may guide a policy path as daunting as Smalls’s passage across Confederate lines. His voice will weigh on his Republican colleagues from South Carolina in the Senate, Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsay Graham.

The Clyburn-Scott dynamic may be one of the most important stories of the new administration.

When I was 12 years old and acting senior patrol leader of the first African-American Boy Scout troop to integrate, Camp Schiele, S.C., in 1967, I drew on the lessons of the African-American experience characterized by Walter Moseley’s title “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.”

As Scott steps out of obscurity given the Republican two-seat majority in the Senate, he’s got a roadmap for navigating treacherous waters.

Like the other 51 African-American members of Congress, he will have the responsibility for describing the real condition and real challenges of the 40 million African-Americans in this country, many of whom trace their ancestors to an entry through the South Carolina coastline not far from where Smalls made his getaway.

Hopefully, they will give voice to the more than 3 million African-American entrepreneurs — a number that has quadrupled over 20 years in tandem with the 5 million black college graduates and 1.5 million college students — and continue the work of the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney to spread economic opportunity. Clyburn is certain to lift up the need to support historically black colleges and universities, the foundation of black progress.

While compiling the annual State of Black Business report for the past 14 years, South Carolina has scored relatively well because of legislation that Clyburn passed in the 1980s, which no Republican administration has dared touch.

Advancing black business has been a relatively nonpartisan issue, as states like Indiana, headed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence; Texas, led by Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry; and Ohio got high marks in the most recent study. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s advocacy in New York earned the top marks.

With two other African-American senators to work with, Scott is likely to use the platform to focus, like Clyburn, on getting things done. Contrary to the president-elect’s gloomy assessment, the near record low 8.1 percent black unemployment is a platform for rapid progress.

The biggest issue is achieving access to credit for black firms to hire more workers, something only 100,000 manage to do. Raising that number to 300,000 would eliminate the black-white unemployment disparity and solve many other problems, from housing to criminal justice.

With 500,000 black businesses in healthcare, the future of the industry is a great way to increase employment. Leveraging the BP settlement to create industry in the Black Belt can grow firms like Columbia’s Eau Claire Cooperative Health to address disparities and give Clyburn’s signature Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor the same energy as the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall.

Smalls saw South Carolina go from launching the Civil War to approving the end of slavery in four years. The challenge of being behind enemy lines should not deter African-Americans from guiding vessels designed to their detriment towards greater freedom.

Since Crispus Attucks, African-Americans have held America to its word, so that America will be America for everyone.


John William Templeton is co-founder of National Black Business Month and architect of Our10Plan, the African-American economic strategy. He is president of the Zenviba Capital Corp., which serves as an adviser to the National Bankers Association, and author of “Road to Ratification: How 27 States Tackled the Most Pressing Issue in American History.”

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags African-American Mike Pence South Carolina Tim Scott United States House of Representatives
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