S.C. Kingmaker Is Staying Neutral

"I'm like everybody else, I'm torn," South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn says of his presidential choices in the primary coming up this Saturday.

Except, of course, Clyburn is not like everybody else. He's the House Majority Whip, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, and a kingmaker here in the Palmetto State.

He has remained neutral in this race, between the first serious black presidential contender, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and the wife of a man once referred to as "the first black president" by Toni Morrison, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clyburn, 67, says he takes enormous personal pride in Obama's candidacy. But as the father three girls, he also takes pride in Clinton's historic run. "She is doing things for them as well," he says.

Race and Race

Staying out of the fray has not been easy, and for a time this month Clyburn almost recanted his impartiality to protest comments Clinton made about civil rights that he saw as demeaning. Clinton had talked about how "it took a president to get it done," praising President Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Act into law and seeming to diminish the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I was bothered by that," Clyburn tells ABC News. "You work hard, you try to create a climate within which young African-Americans would not have to go through the same difficulties you went through."

He saw Clinton's comments as an affront to "those activists who put those issues on the table."


Elected president of his NAACP youth chapter in 1952, when he was 12-years-old, Clyburn was deeply involved in the civil rights struggles in South Carolina. He was arrested in 1960 as one of 388 college students marching through Orangeburg, holding signs saying "We Want Liberty" and "Segregation Is Dead." One year later he was jailed for marching on the state capitol in Columbia.

"I remember the debate of what should be in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Voting was left out of that because LBJ insisted that it should not be in there," he says. "It was not until a year later, after Bloody Sunday, when MLK and John Lewis and others, took that fateful walk across Edmund Pettis' bridge, is when we got the Voting Rights Act. So who was most important to that? LBJ, who would not allow it in 1964, or those people who forced it in in 1965?"

He didn't have time to recount this to Clinton when she called him as he traveled, as she and her allies tried to prevent him from endorsing Obama in this crucial Southern primary, in which up to 50 percent of the voters may be black.

"I certainly reminded President Clinton when I spoke to him, because I talked with him twice about it," Clyburn says.

Ultimately Clyburn stayed neutral, abiding by his promise to the Democratic National Committee, which "told me up front that the candidates were very concerned about the candidates having this primary and my getting actively involved on behalf of one or the other candidates, and the rest of them would boycott it. And they couldn't have that. So I am keeping my promise to the party because I think this whole thing is much bigger than my emotions."

The Clintons said that Clyburn must have been misinformed about what they had actually said. (Bill Clinton was also criticized by some blacks for referring to Obama's campaign as "a fairy tale." He said he was just referring to Obama's description of his opposition to the war in Iraq, though others took the remark as a broader dismissal of his candidacy.)

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