James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, told a crowd of roughly 30 students Monday afternoon that meaningful political reform requires dedication and persistence.
At the Branford College Master’s Tea, co-sponsored by the Yale College Democrats and the Black Students Alliance at Yale, Clyburn discussed how his childhood in Sumter, South Carolina and his first-hand experiences with civil rights movements motivated him to enter politics. In pushing for social change, he said it is important to discuss issues with others respectfully and “endear yourself to people.”
When Clyburn was 10 years old, he said he experienced one of the first waves of desegregation that occurred in South Carolina’s public school system. Two years later, he became president of a local youth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During his time as a student at South Carolina State University, he said he was arrested along with hundreds of fellow students for his role in a civil rights demonstration. During his incarceration, a woman who also participated in the sit-in handed him half of a hamburger, and one year later, he said he “repaid her by marrying her.”
Clyburn said through his interactions with his wife, Emily, he learned that all people come from different backgrounds and thus approach issues differently, adding that this mind-set has shaped his work in politics.
“No two people will have the same exact two experiences,” Clyburn said, “and therefore no two people will see the world the same way.”
In the House of Representatives, Clyburn has addressed issues such as healthcare reformation and funding for higher education.
Clyburn said it is unrealistic to expect that lawmakers can find an effective solution to a significant issue at the first attempt. He pointed out that the current civil rights laws did not come from the first Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he said only accounted for discrimination by employers in the public sector. Instead, it took four distinct bills over the course of eight years to add other measures, such as ensuring voting rights for all citizens.
“If you think you’re going to do it all in one big scoop, it’s not going to happen,” he said, adding that policy makers accept that they will never achieve a “perfect” solution to any problem.
Zak Newman ’13, the president of the Yale College Democrats, said he appreciated that Clyburn recognized that civil rights can still be strengthened and is actively working to stop racial profiling.
Several other attendees interviewed said they were encouraged by Clyburn’s optimistic outlook. Sterling Johnson ’15 said he appreciated that Clyburn is able to garner funding for projects in his district, adding that he was able to effectively connect with the college students in the audience.
But Emily Briskin ’15 said she wished Clyburn had talked more about his stances on specific issues.
“I’m kind of disappointed,” she said. “I wanted to his hear his views on the syringe exchange program and to hear more of an adamant stance on Congress’s repeal of the ban on federal funding for syringes.”
Clyburn was first elected to represent South Carolina’s sixth congressional district in 1993.