'From which I came': U.S. Congressman, civil rights activist James Clyburn honored with portrait in Mayesville

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 5/15/18

A photo of Mary McLeod Bethune sits higher on the wall than any other frame in U.S. Congressman James Clyburn's office in Washington D.C.

It's there to remind the U.S. representative for South Carolina's 6th District of where he came from and how …

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'From which I came': U.S. Congressman, civil rights activist James Clyburn honored with portrait in Mayesville

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A photo of Mary McLeod Bethune sits higher on the wall than any other frame in U.S. Congressman James Clyburn's office in Washington D.C.

It's there to remind the U.S. representative for South Carolina's 6th District of where he came from and how the two's shared hometown of Mayesville remains a proud part of him.

Clyburn came home on Saturday evening for the unveiling of the newest addition to the Mary McLeod Bethune Learning Center and Art Gallery - a portrait of himself.

"There was always a spot missing," said Vivian Fleming-McGhaney, representative for District 5 on the Sumter County Council, of the collection of portraits on the walls.

Fleming-McGhaney said the stories and good deeds of Clyburn - and all the other African-Americans from Sumter and throughout the state featured in portraits throughout the building - need to be told to younger generations for posterity.

Those stories began for Clyburn at a young age. Successful in baseball at Lincoln High School, he soon would immerse himself in the Civil Rights Movement and begin to grow his moral compass that so many in Congress listen to.

His time in Congress and fighting for equality and justice may not have been what his mother wanted for him - she wanted him to be a doctor - or his father wanted for him - to be a minister - but he did receive more than 30 honorary doctorates for his work.

"And my dad said, 'God would rather see a sermon than hear one,'" he said.

Clyburn, who was first elected to Congress in 1993, has myriad accolades to his name, from being a teacher to being House Majority Whip, but his focus on Saturday was home.

He said his mother went to Morris College and never closed her beauty shop as she worked to graduate in three years.

"She made me learn everything I could about Mary McLeod Bethune," Clyburn said. "I will never forget from which I came."

He said he learned from his mother and continues to learn from his wife, Emily, since they got married in 1961, not too long after she shared a hamburger with him while they were both in jail following a student demonstration at South Carolina State College.

Education and ensuring access to it for African-Americans was a forefront of his conversation, whether it involved the necessity and importance of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) like Morris College or the remembrance of his wife having to walk two and a half miles each way to get to school before she was let on a bus.

No one is going to give you permission, he said. That's not how civil rights activism worked decades ago, and it's not how it works now.

"If you feel good enough, big enough and bad enough, go do it," he said.

His wisdom and his track record has an effect on everyone from his own younger brother, who introduced him on Saturday, to Barack Obama, who, in that introduction, Charles Clyburn explained his brother was one of the only congressmen who commanded attention and got it.

Clearly, just because a town is as small as Mayesville does not mean its' people should be kept in the shadows. He may be in D.C. now, but Clyburn will never forget "from which I came."

As the linen draping the new portrait was taken down, Clyburn was the first to see it. He stood motionless for a few seconds, taking it in.

Maybe someone could take a picture of the portrait and keep that in Mayesville so he can have the real version, he said jokingly.

He later said he is proud to be from Mayesville and to come back for this honor, which he did not take lightly.

"I know Simmie Knox," he said of the artist. "I'll have to tell him how great of a job he did."