April 15 marks 55 years since U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn joined students from colleges across the country at Shaw University to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group is credited with giving a voice to black students that catapulted the civil rights movement.
Clyburn, a Democrat who represents South Carolina, returned to Shaw on Tuesday with a clear message: It’s time to activate – again.
“You young people on college campuses all over this country are too quiet,” he said. “You’ve got to activate. The trajectory changed in 1960 because students off this campus and campuses all over the country got involved. Y’all have got to get involved again, and things can change again.
“You cannot stay quiet,” he urged. “If you do, just remember: Anything that’s happened before can happen again. Activate.”
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Clyburn was a guest speaker for Shaw’s CASES, a Cultural, Academic, Spiritual, Enrichment Series that freshman and transfer students are required to attend each Tuesday in the school’s chapel.
Freshman Emanuel Williams said he immediately understood Clyburn’s message.
“I’m an observer,” said Williams, 19. “We’re not active in speaking out. We’re more caught up in judging others, instead of improving ourselves and our world.
“It’s an important concept – and I got it.”
Clyburn used his hour with students to share stories from his new book, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.” Each illustrated how and why Clyburn, once a student at a now-struggling historically black college and university, rose to become the third-highest ranking Democrat in Congress.
“To start here on this campus is just quite telling,” Clyburn said of his invitation to speak.
When Clyburn joined other students on Shaw’s campus at the invitation of Shaw alum Ella Baker, he was a junior at S.C. State University, making plans for seminary school.
After that meeting at Shaw and one that followed at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he first met Martin Luther King Jr., “I came out of that room a changed person,” Clyburn said.
His father’s response to his decision not to follow his footsteps into the pulpit was simple: “I suspect the world would rather see a sermon than hear one,” Clyburn recalled.
“Ever since, I’ve tried to make sure the world sees a sermon in my work, a good, productive sermon,” he said.
Although Clyburn, a historian, remembers specific dates of historical and political significance, he told students it’s most important to remember events.
“Dates aren’t important,” Clyburn said, recalling the criticism he received as a teacher because he focused on current events rather than historical time lines to teach his 10th-grade students. “What’s important are events. That’s what shapes our lives.”
For instance, he said, to understand the impact of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it’s important to look at the events that followed and ultimately led to the election of President John F. Kennedy, with Lyndon B. Johnson as second in command.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson took the helm. Under his administration, strides were made in elementary, secondary and higher education, health care and housing.
“It all flowed from student activism,” Clyburn said. “But the same things we fought against before are now staring us in the face again. It’s harder to vote, and there are laws like Stand Your Ground and the unapologetic vigilante deaths of young black men.
“We need to start speaking up about that stuff,” Clyburn said. “History will not be kind to us if we don’t.”
‘Try, try again’
He told students about how he lost his first three elections, including one in which the tally changed from a 500-vote win to a 500-vote loss “because somebody forgot to carry a one.”
He said some suggested he quit running because “three strikes, you’re out.” Instead, he said, “Nobody should live their life by the rules of baseball,” and asked students to finish a sentence they’ve heard from parents and grandparents:
“If at first you don’t succeed,” he began.
“Try, try again,” the audience responded.
“There are no numerical limits on how often we must try,” Clyburn said. “You won’t always succeed, but you have to work through the process. You will be known for the time you got it right.”