Politics & Government

Top lawmakers saw South Carolina race relations evolve

WASHINGTON — House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Sen. Lindsey Graham, both sons of the segregated South, grew up in parts of South Carolina that were much farther apart than the mere 175 miles between them.

Thursday, the two men — a black Democrat and a white Republican — will share an honor that the Jim Crow laws of their youth would have prohibited.

The Columbia Urban League will present to Clyburn and Graham its annual Whitney M. Young Award in recognition of their efforts to advance race relations in South Carolina.

"Both Congressman Clyburn and Senator Graham have demonstrated in their own distinct ways a commitment to social justice and equal opportunity for all Americans," said James T. McLawhorn, the president of the Columbia Urban League.

"People don't necessarily articulate issues the same way, but when the dust settles, they're both of one accord when it comes to promoting basic rules of fairness," McLawhorn said.

The award will be presented in Columbia at a sold-out dinner attended by more than 900 people.

Clyburn, 69, and Graham, 54, expressed deep respect for each other despite their pronounced political differences.

"Receiving this award is a great honor, and being so honored alongside Senator Lindsey Graham makes it doubly so," Clyburn told McClatchy. "Lindsey and I share the philosophy that we must be able to talk to, and work with, those whose backgrounds and opinions may differ from our own. Common ground cannot be reached if we don't."

Graham said that Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, has already established himself as a towering figure in South Carolina.

"When they write the history of this state, Jim is going to be at the very top in terms of congressional influence," Graham said.

McLawhorn said Clyburn and Graham are the first elected politicians to receive the award, which is named after the former head of the national Urban League in 1964, when the landmark Civil Rights Act became law.

Leaders of the Columbia Urban League, McLawhorn said, made a point of honoring two prominent South Carolinians of different races to counter recent negative perceptions of the state over racial matters.

McLawhorn cited Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's "you lie!" outburst as President Barack Obama addressed Congress in September, an insult that many African-Americans — Clyburn among them — think had racial overtones.

McLawhorn also recalled Rusty DePass' widely publicized Facebook comment in June that a guerilla escaped from Columbia's Riverbanks Zoo was "just one of Michelle (Obama's) ancestors."

DePass, a Republican activist and former head of the State Election Commission, apologized for the slur against the first lady, whose great-great-grandfather was a slave in South Carolina.

Just two weeks ago, two Republican Party officials in the state wrote in a newspaper column: "There is a saying that the Jews who are wealth got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

McLawhorn said such incidents have made South Carolina seem like a freak show to many other Americans.

"We have allowed a few South Carolinians to hijack race relations and cast a negative cloud over all South Carolina," McLawhorn said.

Clyburn and Graham, though, marveled at how far the state has come since their childhoods a half-generation apart.

Graham recalled attending all-white classes until the first black schoolchildren joined him and his classmates in the sixth grade.

"I look back and see how far we've come," Graham said. "There are so many African-American teachers now. But we've still got a long way to go. South Carolina has too many disparities in health and income based on race, and there's the I-95 'Corridor of Shame.'"

Clyburn, a descendant of slaves who wept at the Nov. 4 election of Obama as the first black president, said that historic event marked the nation's progress since African-Americans' right to cast ballots was cemented in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"This country is much better than it was 44 years ago," Clyburn said. "My lord, we're light-years ahead of where we were then. (But) we take two steps forward and one step back."

(Washington, of The State, reported from Columbia, S.C. Rosen reported from Washington.)