James Clyburn Transcends Generations in Speech at Howard University’s Convocation

House Majority Speaker James Clyburn speaks at Howard University’s 155th Convocation. (Photo: Hunter Holliday/HUNewsService.com)

By Joshua Heron, Howard University News Service
Guest Column

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn disclosed that he lost three races before being elected to his first position in Congress as representative of South Carolina’s 6th District, during his speech at Howard University’s 155th opening convocation on Friday.

“Nobody should live life by the baseball rule of three strikes, you’re out,” said Clyburn, recalling inquiries about how he would bounce back from the losses.

Clyburn didn’t quit after three times, and now he is the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives 29 years later.

The number three seems prevalent in the Sumter, South Carolina, native’s life. Three days before the South Carolina primary, with Biden’s presidential hopes endangered, Clyburn’s private support for Joe Biden became public. Some believe that democracy was salvaged as Biden won the Democratic primary and the presidency. This was no surprise to U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who calls Clyburn one of the “lions on the Hill.”

Two years later, this lion was roaring on the Hilltop of Howard University. The roar, however, was gentle for the incoming class of 2026 and other audience members filling Cramton Auditorium, which included medical students in white coats, faculty members in academic regalia, dignitaries in suits and curious Howard middle school children in blue polo shirts.

James Clyburn robustly motivates the attendees at Howard’s opening convocation. (Photo: Hunter Holliday/HUNewsService.com)

Clyburn reminded the diverse crowd to prioritize unity. Efficiency, Clyburn believes, requires one person while effectiveness demands many. It’s as if Clyburn, dressed in a black robe, was reminded of the proverb stating, “plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers bring success.” Along with this, advising requires humility.

He reminisced substantially about his late wife, Emily Clyburn. She sat him down after he gave a speech that ignited his pride. “Let me X-plain something to you,” she told him. The crowd laughed as he mocked her Moncks Corner accent. His wife would remind him of the 2.5-mile walk she took compared to his six-block stride to school. Clyburn connected the story back to the Howard University family.

“Respect each other’s experiences,” he said. “That is what it takes to mold families, create community and build a perfect union.”

Amid his steadfast charges, tense muscles relaxed as Clyburn found common ground with the audience. One student labeled the speech “soulful and passionate.” Part of that is due to the congressman minimizing his status as the majority whip in the House of Representatives. “None of us know everything about everything,” he said. Acknowledging a lack of knowledge allows you to sit and listen. The result is the previous generation sharing wisdom with the current one, which leaves an example for the next generation.

Clyburn’s brother, John, hopes individuals would receive from his sibling’s message that “the generational gap is not large.”

The congressman decided to go noteless for the speech and instead read the note that God placed on his heart.

As the South Carolina State College alumnus closed, he told the story of Thomas Edison going from the flatlands of New Jersey to a tea factory in Boston to meet with Lewis Latimer. Latimer was the Black inventor who brought light to the bulb that Edison manufactured. In a time of racial tension, Edison’s humility and Latimer’s willingness lit up the world.

Clyburn offered the crowd a final challenge. “Sit down with someone you may be uncomfortable with, so those coming after you can say, ‘Thank you for letting my journey be just a little bit better.’”

Joshua Heron is a reporter for HUNewsService.com.