On My Mind: One Election And Two Old Southern Men
Over the weekend, as the votes crept in and Joe Biden overtook Donald Trump as slow and sure as high tide, I thought of two old Southern men – one still with us, and one recently gone.
Biden would not be our next president without Jim Clyburn. Clyburn has worked in politics in South Carolina for more than 50 years, as an organizer, a state official and a congressman. If you run as a Democrat in South Carolina, you get Jim Clyburn on your side or you lose.
This year, in the first three Democratic primaries, Joe Biden finished fourth, fifth and a distant second. It was his third time running for president, over a span of more than 30 years, and he had never won a primary in his life. Clyburn could’ve picked Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or anybody else in the field. But he shoved Biden to the front of the line. Biden won South Carolina and never looked back.
This is the way it has always worked in the South. White men still run most things, but Black people are the ones who create the deepest and most lasting changes. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, but it would not have been possible without the sacrifice of Black Southerners who risked their freedom and their lives.
If you are Black in this country, and especially if you are Black in the South, you know you will have to fight years for inches, and you’re bound to get hurt doing it.
Which leads me to the other old Southerner I was thinking of.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Georgia flipped from red to blue. There’s likely to be a recount, and it doesn’t matter so much at this point, but the odds are that Georgia is the one Deep South state that went for Biden.
One of the last counties reporting in was Clayton County. You might’ve spent time there without knowing it: It’s home to the Atlanta airport. It is also part of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which, until a few months ago, was represented by John Lewis.
No American fought longer for equality than John Lewis and few suffered more. He spoke at the March on Washington and had his head caved in at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. He refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, calling him an illegitimate president because of what Lewis saw as Russian interference in the election. Trump, in turn, belittled Lewis and the district he served. And when Lewis died in July, Trump did not attend his memorial service.
Of course, it was just the luck of the draw and the voting machines that John Lewis’ old district helped shut the door on Trump’s second term and ushered in a world closer to the one Jim Clyburn and John Lewis fought for. Luck of the draw. That’s all it was. Nothing about the arc of the moral universe being long and bending toward justice.