By U.S. Rep. James Clyburn
In my memoir “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” I share a philosophy I developed as a student protester on the campus of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg:
“We can be no more or no less than what our life experiences allow us to be.”
I continue to hold to that notion.
As Americans, we must come to grips with the reality that the life experiences of blacks in this state and nation have been vastly different from those of whites.
With few exceptions, whites came to America of their own free will, fleeing bondage and subservience in search of freedom and justice. To the contrary, with few exceptions, blacks came to America against their will, shackled in chains and enslaved.
Our country’s economy and social order were built upon these two sets of divergent experiences — which were based upon race and color. The unrest we are witnessing across the nation and around the world are responses to the remnants of these experiences and the pain and suffering they visit upon their current victims.
Vicious and senseless killings like those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are not new stories.
In South Carolina we remember Walter Scott, who was shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston police officer in April 2015. Then just two months later a white supremacist infiltrated a Bible study at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and snuffed out the lives of nine black worshipers.
There were protests after both of these events, and I participated in some of them. Both North Charleston (led by a Republican mayor) and Charleston (led by a Democratic mayor) provided enlightened leadership; their constituents responded appropriately and justice was served with the convictions and significant sentencings of the perpetrators.
Not a single business was looted — and not a single building was burned.
Today’s protests are sustained and growing because of the larger inequities that have plagued our society since this nation’s founding. Our racial health disparities have been laid bare by COVID-19, and judicial discrepancies exposed in the deaths mentioned above have ripped open a scab that has been long festering.
Time to repair
In one of his iconic poems Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run? … Or does it explode?”
And in his great work “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America’s greatness “lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
We must repair the faults in our law enforcement practices that allow young black men and women to die at alarming rates at the hands of police officers.
We must repair the faults in our health care system that have led to chronic inequities in health delivery and outcomes.
We must repair the faults in our education system — exposed by this pandemic — that have caused children of color to fall further behind because they lack access to affordable high-speed internet in their homes.
We must restructure our judicial system to outlaw primitive methods and provide police accountability and transparent oversight.
I am often asked what advice I would give to this generation of protesters. As the son of a fundamentalist minister, I often reply by quoting Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
I have faith that we shall overcome but as the age-old adage tells us, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Vigilance means organizing, not agonizing.
It means organizing peaceful protests, organizing legislative lobbying efforts and organizing to vote.
As my fellow student protester and current congressional colleague John Lewis often says, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
The prize of “liberty and justice for all” remains a lofty pursuit, and its attainment requires our eternal vigilance.
Democratic U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina is the majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Previously published in The State.