In 2007, I was honored to write the foreword to Dr. Andrew Billingsley’s book on Robert Smalls’ life, “Yearning to Breathe Free.” In that piece, I wrote, “The name Robert Smalls should fall with pride off every South Carolinian’s tongue.”
When I was teaching history in the Charleston public schools, my students often questioned the wisdom of spending so much time discussing things that happened so long ago. They wondered about the relevance of those issues and incidents on their current situations. I always answered by saying, “Anything that has happened before can happen again.”
The life and experiences of Robert Smalls reflect the relevance of that axiom better than the lives of most of the historymakers I have studied.
Born a slave in Beaufort in 1839, Robert Smalls was a significant figure in South Carolina history, though most of us would have a hard time finding his name in history books. And in the rare instances when we do find it, it is usually in the footnotes.
After gaining his freedom, Robert Smalls amassed significant wealth. He was a delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868, where he introduced a resolution mandating free public school education for all citizens. He served for seven years in the South Carolina legislature and another 10 in Congress.
During his years of public service, blacks in South Carolina and throughout the nation participated fully and admirably in citizenship affairs. But those years also saw significant retrenchments by the Congress, state legislature and the United States Supreme Court.
I often cite the “free public school education for all” resolution Smalls presented and the remarkable role he played while serving in the state legislature to establish what is today South Carolina State University as two of the most significant achievements by any South Carolinian in our history.
I applaud and admire him for his guidance and insight on these and many other issues and continue to mention that 1868 resolution with great revere. But in 1895 while serving as a delegate to another state Constitutional Convention, he witnessed it all taken away. By the time he died in 1915, his life and circumstances had come nearly full circle.
Today, when I mention the notion of history repeating itself, I often refer to that 30-year period from 1865 to 1895 and the pendulum swings Robert Smalls and other black South Carolinians witnessed and endured.
Recently, we’ve seen a century of campaign finance laws overturned by the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. Those decisions taking away any meaningful ability to regulate and preserve the integrity of our political system are monumental threats to our democracy.
As we make plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Selma, Ala., march that resulted in the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and revel in the recent movie depicting that historical event, we are lamenting the Supreme Court’s Shelby County, Ala., decision that nullifies the preventive procedures of that 1965 congressional action.
Those recent Supreme Court decisions, and legislative actions in South Carolina and 21 other states, make it easy to conclude that the injustices that necessitated the work and sacrifices ofRobert Smalls and — more recently — the “foot soldiers” of Selma, may just be happening again.
So as we observe the
100th anniversary of his death, we should all seek to emulate the dignity and courage with which he confronted the challenges of his time.
U.S. Rep. James E. “Jim” Clyburn, D-Columbia, represents South Carolina’s 6th District, which includes part of Beaufort County. He has served in Congress since 1993. He is a former majority whip and current House assistant minority leader.