By Alex Ginsberg
Elected officials must act to preserve sites of black cultural heritage across the nation, the highest ranking African-American member of the House of Representatives told a gathering of public officials, business leaders and community activists Friday at Borough Hall.
“That past is too important,” said U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). “If we allow that to get away from us, then our children and grandchildren will not get a good understanding and feel for who and what they are. And it is just as important for them to know what they are, as it is for them to know who they are.”
The five-term Democrat, who is vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, was the guest of U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and Borough President Helen Marshall.
Each year in honor of Black History Month Crowley presents speakers of interest to Queens’ black community. In attendance Friday were many of Queens’ prominent Democratic officeholders, including state Sens. Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) and John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights), state Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik (D-Flushing), and council members Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) and Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights)
Clyburn, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said that through his efforts $50 million in federal money would be set aside to restore 712 historic buildings on more than 100 black college campuses. Although none of the campuses is located in New York state (almost all are spread throughout the South), Clyburn’s office said there were two sites in nearby eastern Pennsylvania.
The 68-year-old congressman, a distinguished figure with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a light Southern drawl, charmed his audience by referring several times to Queens as “up South”—a reminder of the family links that bind blacks in the New York area with those in South Carolina. In remarks that lasted about an hour, Clyburn covered a wide range of topics, from his childhood in Sumter, S.C. to his memories of working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s.
Clyburn also surprised some in the audience when he said that Harry Truman—a white Missourian—was his earliest role model. Truman’s dramatic victory over the patrician Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential race was to Clyburn proof that in America, background mattered little.
“There’s something about this guy, though our skin colors may be different, that I can relate to,” he said. “There’s something about his background I can relate to.”
On the controversial issue of reparations for the descendants of former slaves, Clyburn conceded that cash payments would not be practical. It would be impossible, he argued, to distinguish among claims of varying authenticity. Instead, Clyburn said the community should focus on solutions that attack institutionalized racism.
To that end, he said, affirmative action—which he defined as “any program or policy designed to eliminate the current effects of past discrimination”—was the best form that reparations could take.
He also recalled King and his special ability to recruit talented collaborators.
“He recognized that no one of us is strong enough, no one of us well-connected enough, no one of us knowledgeable enough to be all things to all people,” Clyburn said of the slain civil rights leader.
It’s a lesson Clyburn believes must not be forgotten.
“In life, be it politics or whatever, we have to learn to recognize and respect the individual worth in each and every one of us,” he said. “And that has nothing to do with ethnicity. It has nothing to do with what station in life you may be. It has everything to do with whatever abilities you’ve developed and you may bring to the process.”
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.