Rep. Jim Clyburn is a veteran of the civil rights movement, having been one of the early organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he even first met Rep. John Lewis. House Majority Whip Clyburn has been in Congress since 1993 and a force in South Carolina politics, largely thanks to his late wife Emily, who played a key role in his political career.
The two first met while in jail during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It’s been decades since but 80-year-old congressman Clyburn loves to tell the story of how he met Emily at a time he wasn’t even thinking about romance.
Both were then students at South Carolina State University when they were arrested protesting segregation at an Orangeburg drug store counter in 1960.
“We had been in jail all night, and they hadn’t fed us all day. I was standing there and I said to nobody in particular, ‘Boy, am I hungry,'” Clyburn recalled during a 2014 MSNBC interview. “There was this little 95-pound person standing nearby. Next thing, she is back with a hamburger. She offered it to me, then pulled it back. She tore it in half, gave me one half, and kept the other half for herself.”
“I tell everybody she got me for half a hamburger,” Clyburn said.
The two married the following year and remained together for 58 years with three daughters before Emily passed away last September.
A native of Moncks Corner, Emily was a public school librarian in Columbia and Charleston before spending almost 30 years as a medical librarian at the Charleston Naval Base and Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia. In 1961, she got a bachelor’s degree in Library Science from South Carolina State College before receiving a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina in 1977.
Emily and her husband raised millions of dollars through the years for the “endowment and need-based scholarships” at their alma mater – South Carolina State University, reports ABC News. That University awarded Emily an honorary doctorate in 2010.
Rep. Clyburn has occasionally talked not only about his first time meeting with his wife but also how she influenced his political decision-making. It was Emily who urged him to run for office, first in South Carolina and later in Congress.
Even when he thought about leaving the Congress when the Republicans took back the U.S. House following the 2010 elections, it was Emily who persuaded him not to.
“As always, she was right,” Clyburn said in 2015.
And many Democratic leaders think so too.
“In the Congress, we all were blessed to see the great love that Jim and Emily shared over nearly six decades of marriage. Their love, forged during the fight for civil rights, brought joy to all who were fortunate enough to know them.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement following Emily’s passing last September.
“Emily Clyburn was a champion of equality and opportunity who made a difference for countless young people in her beloved South Carolina.”
In the following video, congressman Clyburn remembers meeting his wife: