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Overcoming racism and igniting hope: The story of Aiken ‘trailblazer’ Bill Clyburn

February 24, 2019

When Bill Clyburn was first encouraged to run for Aiken City Council in the 1970s, his initial thought was along the lines of “Oh lord, no.”

At the time Clyburn was an educator and sports coach at Aiken High School, and an African-American had never held a seat on City Council before.

“There were some grownups who thought it was not the time to run for an African-American... and it wasn’t very popular, to be honest with you,” Clyburn said.

However, he found encouragement in the students he coached, who promised they would get new haircuts and campaign door-to-door for him if he decided to run. Parents of all races became inspired by the faith their children had in Clyburn, and in 1973, he became the first black Aiken city councilman.

In 1980, Clyburn would again make history as the first African-American elected to Aiken County Council.

Clyburn now serves as the South Carolina Representative for District 82. He is a veteran of civil service with decades of experience and has received notable recognition for his accomplishments and projects.

He is especially proud of his work facilitating early education and working to better life in rural areas of South Carolina, such as getting reflectors placed on country roads and the Rural Infrastructure Authority, which aimed to create more rural job opportunities.

And yet, sitting in his government office in Columbia, he can still vividly recall reading the signs that barred him from public facilities and businesses because of the color of his skin.

“People say it was a way of life, but it was unacceptable for those who were feeling the pain from it,” Clyburn said on segregation.

Even after becoming an elected official, Clyburn faced racism from others who did not want him to exercise his authority to make appointments as a city councilman.

“It was deeply ingrained – the separation of groups – and there were so many good people out there that belonged to all of these groups, but they were practicing things that they grew up with and were accustomed to doing,” Clyburn said. ”…It’s not an easy thing to change minds.”

Clyburn said what he experienced was a “microcosm of what was happening” in communities everywhere, not just Aiken. It was a time of turmoil and change as the civil rights movement rocked the nation. Recalling what he witnessed during the protests and marches evokes a powerful response from him to this day.

“It was frightening,” Clyburn said. ”…It was very emotional. But I personally knew that things were going to change, so it was just a matter of time. But it wasn’t very pleasant because things start coming to mind about how people were being treated, you know. It was very difficult. But I knew that change was going to come, and it did. You thank so many people from all sides for contributions they made to make life better for all.”

Despite the difficult times he witnessed, Clyburn said the future is “brighter” for young people because of it, and he is proud to have friends from all different races, economic classes and backgrounds.

Within his own microcosm of Aiken, Clyburn saw unity and change unfold in other ways. The chamber of commerce, local leaders and church groups played a part, but what changed the “separate but equal” mindset the most was what helped elect him to city council; education.

He believes education is an extremely important tool in combating racism. He especially noticed this while coaching integrated sports teams, where athletes of all different backgrounds learned from each other, and came together to form a team.

Education is what sent Clyburn, one of 15 children, to college and set him on the path to become an educator in Aiken, where he would influence many students who would become prominent local leaders today.

“I have known Bill Clyburn for over 50 years,” Aiken City Councilwoman Gail Diggs said. “He was coaching and teaching at Schofield when I was in the seventh grade. He was a great teacher, coach and role model for so many. He is a trailblazer and paved the way for public service and political office for others who look like him.”

Diggs works at Rural Health Services at Clyburn Place, which was named in his honor.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, works alongside Clyburn and praised his good-natured” character.

“Bill Clyburn is the epitome of a dedicated, caring public servant,” Taylor said in an email. “He works tirelessly for every citizen of South Carolina, not just his constituents... I’ve learned much from his wise counsel and his bipartisan approach to difficult legislative issues.”

Despite all his accomplishments, there is still a lot Clyburn, who is now 77, hopes to accomplish. He wants children everywhere in South Carolina to have the same education resources as children in Charleston and Greenville counties, and he wants to improve health in rural areas as well.

All the same, Clyburn said Aiken has come a long way in the right direction, and he has a positive outlook on the present and the future.

“Aiken is one of the better places in South Carolina, and I think it’s because of education,” Clyburn said.