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Congressman Jim Clyburn reflects on his life and legacy during Black History Month

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This Black History Month, CBS News is reflecting on and recognizing change makers and their contributions to America. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn was elected to the House in 1992. He became majority whip in 2006, making him the highest-ranking African American in Congress. The congressman is considered a mentor to many Democrats in South Carolina, including CBS News political contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. The pair sat down for a conversation to mark this moment in history.

Video Transcript

- This Black History Month we're taking a moment to reflect on and recognize change-makers and their contributions to America. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn was elected to the House in 1992. He became majority whip in 2006, making him the highest ranking African-American in Congress. It's a position he still holds today. The Congressman is considered a mentor to many Democrats in South Carolina, including our CBS News political contributor and Democratic Strategist Antjuan Seawright. The pair sat down for a conversation to mark this moment in history.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Congressman in your book, and I've quoted this a time or ten, you write, "Our lives are the sum total of our experiences. And although they all have not been pleasant, they all have been blessed." You have done so many things in your life, and you literally re-calibrated history so many times in your life. Talk to us about some major events as we celebrate Black History Month, and perhaps some consequential people that impacted those blessed experiences known to be Jim Clyburn's experiences.

JIM CLYBURN: Well, thank you Let me talk about the consequence of these things. You know, there's so much I could say about Black History Month that would probably be very educational to a lot of the listeners here. But when I was coming along, these are things I had to learn outside of school, because it didn't happen in textbooks. Now every now and then, I run across a student, as I did a few weeks ago, who said that "I saw you in my school book." I think that we are now getting to the point where we can really give due deference to people who have made this country what it is today.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: February of 2020. What, February 29, 2020 will be a day the world never forgot, because it was a turning point, not only Democratic presidential preference, primary preference history, but American political history. For you, as someone who adjusted the temperature in this country and in American politics, what did that day mean for you when you saw the exit polls say 50% of the people who voted for Joe Biden, voted because of the endorsement of Jim Clyburn?

JIM CLYBURN: See, it's one thing to endorse. It's somebody else to have an effective endorsement. I didn't want to just endorse. I wanted it to be of such that Joe Biden could get beyond those three losses he just had. He had just lost in Iowa, and then New Hampshire, and then Nevada. And everybody was writing his political obituary.

I had this lady who I didn't know it at the time, but I now know is Jenny Jones at St. John's Baptist Church sitting on the front pew. I'm there for a funeral, and she called me over and asked me who I was going to vote for. And I told her, and she looked at me and she says I needed to hear that. And the people in this community need to hear from you. And that's why I said I'm going all in. And I went all in.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: The Congressional Caucus celebrated 50 years this year. It's a monumental occasion what is known as the Conscience of the Congress. I said the Conscience of the Country. The celebration will happen with you being the highest ranking African-American member of the Caucus, known as the Dean of the Caucus to some. But also without your dear friend and brother, John Lewis, there. What does 50 years of the Congressional Black Caucus mean for then, now, and years to come?

JIM CLYBURN: Well you know John Lewis and I enjoyed a 60-year relationship. We first met in October, 1960. And that friendship was indescribable. And John made some significant sacrifices. I say that back in the day, we all accepted non-violence as a tactic. John Lewis, to him nonviolence became a way of life. And he had a tremendous impact on me and most of the people that he came in contact with. But John Lewis never gave up. Never gave up.

I know we all went through it for the last four years. Few people thought we could pull off what we pulled off last November. How many people you know, thought that both of the United States Senators from Georgia in the November 3rd election, it would be Democrats, where both were Republicans before. One would be Jewish, another a black Baptist. Nobody thought that. It came about because nobody gave up. And so I believe that we can make Black History Month a place, a time in space, that everybody can celebrate.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: You, not only in my view, are know as consequential, but I think you represent, perhaps, one of the more transitional leaders of our day, as you prepared a lot of people. What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders who will stand under shade because of the seed that Jim Clyburn and others have planted?

JIM CLYBURN: I would say that young people, really two things. And you've heard me say both of them. Number one, I believe that every young person should get to know people, that he or she planned to make their livelihoods from. One of the biggest mistakes I think the people make is trying to get people to understand them. No. You spend your time understanding the people that you want to interact with. And I guarantee you, they will understand you.

The second thing I would say to any young person, find something to do for which you're not paid. You get rewards in life for the things you do above and beyond that which you are paid to do. Every successful enterprise that I've ever gotten involved in, came because of people looking and recognizing something that I was doing above and beyond that which I was paid to do.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: When it dries on the pages of history, you want the world to remember James E Clyburn for what?

JIM CLYBURN: Doing everything he possibly could to make America's greatness accessible and affordable for all.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Plain and simple. And every church said Amen.

JIM CLYBURN: Amen.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Mr. Whip, thank you for your time. Thank you for all you've done to make this little experiment called America work, and to elevate and amplify and put megawatts to the Black experience. Thank you.

JIM CLYBURN: Thank you, brother.