U.S. leader addresses legislators

COLUMBIA - U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn took South Carolina's motto Tuesday and offered it as a mantra for the General Assembly, "While I breathe, I hope."

Building on the progress of the past, Mr. Clyburn laid out goals for South Carolina's educational system, economy and environment.

And in the process, he breathed hope into the hearts of Democrats struggling to remain vigilant in the face of Republican majorities, said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, a black House member.

"I think (his speech) will make a lot of difference," Mr. Sellers said.

Mr. Clyburn, D-S.C., on Tuesday became the first black Congressman to speak before the General Assembly in more than 100 years.

And he said the historical significance of delivering a speech in the House of Representatives, where the Confederate flag was displayed a few years ago, is not lost on him.

But Mr. Clyburn said it's more than just symbolism.

While calling for change to close the economic and educational gaps that exist in South Carolina, Mr. Clyburn said real progress has been made in bridging the state's historical racial divide.

"My being here today is an example of that - not just the speech that I gave today, but the relationships I have with the people in this body, the relationship I have with Speaker (Bobby) Harrell," he said. "We joke all the time about our party differences, but we never joke about what we need to do to make life better for our children and our grandchildren. He's trying to raise a family here, and I'm trying to do the same thing."

Indeed, the most widespread applause during Mr. Clyburn's speech came after his call for bipartisanship.

"We have been elected because we inspire hope," he said.

That means protecting the homeland, furthering the next generations' education and well-being, developing new economies and safeguarding the environment, Mr. Clyburn said.

"These are not the goals which belong exclusively to one level of government or the other," he said. "They are not the aspirations of the federal government alone, or the states, or the local jurisdictions. They do not belong to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party."

Even as he praised the state's progress, though, Mr. Clyburn laid out proposals for decreasing the disparity among South Carolinians, especially on how to improve the conditions along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Among them:

- Reworking the state's lottery-funded scholarship programs that result, he said, in disproportionately awarding grants that don't have to be paid back to upper-income students and providing loans that must be paid back to lower-income families.

- Investing in alternative fuels for economic and security reasons.

"Because cotton is no longer king, and tobacco is no longer our largest cash crop, the agricultural belt, which once supported much of South Carolina, has become more of a noose, choking farmers and their communities," he said.

- Improving the water quality, which he believes is directly linked to health problems.

Mr. Clyburn's cousin, Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, is hopeful that the congressman's speech will have an impact.

"I think those who feel they know the right thing to do, but they've been getting away with (not doing it) and have not felt the pressure," he said.

But now, he said, "They know that it's not just people here in South Carolina that's watching what's being done, but people on the national level and people in Congress who are saying, 'Here's some of the things that you ought to be doing to improve the quality of life for all your people.'"

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or kirsten.singleton@morris.com.