Masters of Leadership: Congressman James Clyburn

House Majority Whip stresses the importance of broadband in addressing multiple crises.

By Mark Toner

As the nation continues to struggle with multiple challenges, House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) told technology leaders that extending internet access to every home remains a critical priority.

“Broadband has got to be the order of the day going forward,” said Clyburn as part of the Masters in Leadership series, sponsored by NVTC and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). 

Clyburn, who is chair of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis and the Rural Broadband Task Force, said that the COVID-19 pandemic “has opened up a fault line” exposing multiple challenges. Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, both telehealth and online learning will be critical—and expanding access to broadband is in turn vital to ensuring both are available to everyone, the Congressman said during the June 30 event, which was moderated by CTA president and CEO, bestselling author and NVTC board member Gary Shapiro.

“We must use technology to penetrate rural communities throughout this country, to get broadband out there so they can have telehealth, so they can have online learning, and so they can be brought into the mainstream of this country’s greatness. That to me is the challenge today.”

Past is Prologue

Clyburn spoke to the $2 trillion allocated by Congress to date to address the coronavirus pandemic, stressing the importance of ensuring that aid is efficient, effective, and equitable. 

“We’re going to get through this. But we’ve got to get through this in such a way that we’re better off as a result,” he said.

Addressing the challenges the country faces today also requires looking at the past, Clyburn told participants. The Congressman cited the inequitable distribution of polio treatments earlier in the century as a reason to focus on equity during the current crisis. He cited Sen. Mitt Romney, who previously spoke as part of the Masters of Leadership series and his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, as examples of seeking answers during times of racial unrest. 

“I learned early from George Romney why it was necessary sometimes to look behind what people are presenting,” Clyburn said. Following unrest in Detroit during the Civil Rights era, the elder Romney traveled to rural South Carolina to understand the struggles people faced, while his son recently marched in Black Lives Matter protests in Washington. 

Clyburn also credited Thomas Edison, who in his quest to create the light bulb “got out of his comfort zone” and worked with Lewis Latimer, an African American son of escaped slaves who had invented a process for making the filaments needed to manufacture them.

“Unfortunately, our textbooks do not give proper credit to Lewis Latimer,” Clyburn said. “But those of us who understand what it is to get outside their comfort zone, to do what is necessary to bring light into the world, must do it. And that, to me, is what’s going to be required in this environment today.”

But Clyburn also looked to the future. As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clyburn said he led colleagues on tours of Silicon Valley and the Northern Virginia technology corridor “because I wanted them to get in tune with what we were headed for,” he said. “Technology is a great thing… but we have not met all the challenges.”  

Moving Beyond a ‘Soundbite World

Drawing parallels to his work with John Lewis and others during the Civil Rights era, Clyburn lamented that the modern-day protests stemming from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been “hijacked” by calls to defund police. 

“We have evolved, or maybe devolved, into a soundbite world,” Clyburn said. “We tend to react to the soundbite…. rather than look behind the soundbite.”

Clyburn also stressed the importance of postsecondary training and nontraditional education, calling it an area where he agrees with the Trump Administration. “We have to broaden our discussion of education,” he said. “You have to send your kids to postsecondary education [but] it may not be a liberal arts college. We have to think more broadly than that.”

“Doctors need plumbers. Plumbers need lawyers. Lawyers need automobile mechanics,” Clyburn added. “We all need each other.”

The Congressman also spoke about leadership lessons learned from his parents. His mother, a college graduate and entrepreneur, encouraged him to pursue his dreams. His father anticipated Clyburn following him into the clergy but supported his move into politics, saying “I suspect the world would much rather see a sermon than hear one.”

“You lead by precept and example,” Clyburn said. “You don’t just announce that precept, you live that precept. That’s how leadership is.”

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Clyburn had a simple answer: “He did his damnedest.”

The Masters of Leadership series continues on July 7 with Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James and Best Buy CEO Corie Barry on July 29. For more information, click here.  A recording of this interview and previous ones can be found here


Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.