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Relentless, Despite Losses: Congressman's Climb To The Hill

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It took years for Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina to become who he is today: the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.

And those years included many failures. During a visit to StoryCorps, his granddaughter Sydney Reed, who was 10 at the time of the recording, asks Clyburn a personal question: "Have you ever felt you wanted to quit?"

"Oh, absolutely," Clyburn, 72, responds without hesitation.

He flashes back to 1970, when he won a primary race for the South Carolina House of Representatives. Clyburn celebrated with a huge party after the votes came in. Everyone was jumping up and down with excitement, he recalls.

"But the next morning, I went into the bathroom and there, on my sink, was a little note from your grandmother," Clyburn tells Reed.

"When you win, brag gently. When you lose, weep softly," he recalls the note reading.

"And I thought that was kind of interesting. And I stuck it up on the mirror in the bathroom," Clyburn says.

That November, when the general election rolled around and the polls closed, news organizations rushed to announce that Clyburn had won. But the next morning — at 3:30 a.m. — Clyburn awoke to sour news.

Visitors at his front door told him that something had gone wrong at the courthouse. He made his way down to the building, where he was told that he didn't win by 500 votes; he had lost by 500 votes.

"The next morning when I went to my bathroom, I looked up at the mirror, and I wept softly. And yes, I thought then that this was the worst thing [that] could possibly happen," Clyburn says. "But later on that morning, I determined that I was going to go forward."

In 1978, Clyburn decided to run for South Carolina secretary of state, but he lost. When he tried again eight years later, he lost again.

"More than one person said to me, 'Well, that's your third strike,' " he says. " 'What are you going to do next?' And I always said, 'Three strikes may be an out in baseball, but life is not baseball.' "

In 1992, he ran to represent South Carolina's 6th Congressional District. This time, he won.

"I don't know, there was just something that kept telling me that you've got to stick this out," Clyburn says. "And you know, we have a state seal in South Carolina, and the Latin phrase on the seal says Dum Spiro Spero — 'While I breathe, I hope.'

"And I've always felt that there's hope," Clyburn says. "And so I have never given up."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Anita Rao.

StoryCorps Bonus: Animated Video

In this short, Carl McNair remembers his brother Ronald E. McNair, a South Carolina native who was a laser physicist and the second African-American in space. Ron died with his fellow crew members when the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff 27 years ago.

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