The third most powerful Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives was quick to remind 200 students and parents gathered Friday in Baton Rouge that he had been urged by a friend to quit politics for good after losing three elections.
Congressman Jim Clyburn, speaking at the Louisiana Leadership Institute, recounted how tenacity — and learning how to lose gracefully — actually helped him rise through the political ranks.
“I want the kids to really understand that there is no reason to ever give up on your dreams,” Clyburn said in an interview before his speech.
Clyburn is the assistant House Democratic leader as well as the highest-ranking black representative in the House. He has been a U.S. representative for South Carolina since 1993.
He is friends with Louisiana Leadership Institute founder Cleo Fields, a Louisiana congressman from 1993-97.
The Louisiana Leadership Institute, which offers Saturday classes and a host of other programs for students, has had a series of speakers over the years, including retired Gen. Colin Powell.
Clyburn’s talk Friday was heavy with personal anecdotes, following the May release of his book, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” which recounts his career in politics as well as his early life. He told the audience he intended his book to be a guide for young people.
Clyburn, who turns 74 on July 21, emphasized the significance of his own losses in shaping who he was and testing him to remain calm in the face of failure.
He ran for, and lost, various political offices in 1970, 1978 and 1986. If he had given up then, he says, he’d never be where he is today.
“I want each of you to keep trying until you get it right,” he urged the students.
He recalled losing a race for state legislature in South Carolina by only 500 votes, when he thought that he had won by that many. But rather than publicly claim something had gone wrong with the ballot counting, he told reporters he simply didn’t get enough votes. That quote in the newspaper the next day led to the state’s newly elected governor, John West, calling him to meet. Clyburn went to work for him soon after.
“He saw that I knew how to lose,” Clyburn said. “I haven’t looked back since.”
Clyburn also alluded to the struggles of famous inventors such as Thomas Edison and stressed that the audience is capable of similar innovations.
“We’re still looking for people like you to open secrets and solve problems,” he said. “This world is waiting on you. This world is depending on you.”
The son of a fundamentalist Church of Christ pastor and a beautician, Clyburn described how experiences in his life that may have seemed minor, like playing alto sax and baseball at South Carolina State, shaped who he is today. He also described teaching 10th-grade world history at a South Carolina high school just after he graduated and during the John F. Kennedy assassination. He thought about those students, he said, as he wrote his book, trying to imagine what they could learn from each chapter.
The Louisiana Leadership Institute students, who will discuss Clyburn’s book in two weeks in their Leadership Classroom, said they found his address helpful.
“It’s really an encouragement to see a person come from the beginnings he has and become such a powerful force in the United States,” said 16-year-old Keshaun Septs.
“I feel like it’s a challenge for youth to buckle down and pursue their goals,” Rachél Oatis, 18, said. “He really challenged us to pursue them.”
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter @_dbethencourt.