South Carolina

‘We all loved her so much’: From SC to DC, mourners say goodbye to Emily Clyburn

Joyce McCray never met Emily England Clyburn, the matriarch of one of the most influential families in South Carolina and a legacy builder in her own right.

Yet Sunday, more than an hour before doors were to open at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, McCray — along with hundreds more — found herself standing in line for a church service for a woman she did not know.

McCray said the woman, Emily Clyburn, exuded love for her community and for her husband, Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House as the chamber’s majority whip.

Emily Clyburn — known more affectionately in the community as Ms. Emily — died Thursday at age 80.

A member of Brookland Baptist, McCray said she came to the services Sunday night to show support for Clyburn’s survivors in their grief.

“We always talk about seeing Christ, and I saw Christ with her and her husband in what they did for the community and what they did for others,” said McCray, a widow. “It’s going to be a tough road. As believers as those who have lost one, I believe it is important, even though he (Jim Clyburn) may not know me, to be there to support.”

The Sunday service drew political leaders from South Carolina to Washington, including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

House votes were canceled Monday so that she and other members of Congress could attend the service. The California Democrat attended along with U.S. representative and civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia, and Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, who sat in the front row of pews. Behind them sat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and his wife, Peggy, and other members of the U.S. House and the South Carolina General Assembly.

Former Vice President Joe Biden — a longtime friend of the Clyburn’s and a 2020 candidate — plans to attend a homegoing service for Emily Clyburn in Charleston on Monday at Morris Brown AME Church, where Clyburn was a longtime member.

“We all loved her so much,” said Pelosi, greeted with applause as she walked to the lectern.

“For us in the House, she was not only a gentle lady, she was a strategic thinker. ... (She was) kind, brilliant, strategic.”

Emily Clyburn was a longtime librarian and an advocate for education who helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars to help prospective students afford college. in 2010, she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from S.C. State University, her alma mater. There, she will be remembered through a scholarship fund and pedestrian bridge, both in her name.

She was a mother to three daughters — Mignon Clyburn, Jennifer Reed and Angela Hannibal — and a grandmother. She also was married for nearly 60 years to her husband, Jim Clyburn, whom she met in March 1960, while both were students at S.C. State and jailed during a civil rights demonstration.

She belonged to South Carolina, but also to Columbia, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told the congregation at Brookland Baptist Sunday night. At the end of his remarks, Benjamin held up a road sign that proclaimed the street in the Clyburn’s historic Greenview neighborhood now as “Dr. Emily E. Clyburn Way.”

“We claim the Clyburn’s as ours and we love them,” said Benjamin. “Ms. Emily was a role model, a role model for all, but for those who spend every day in public life.

“Today (Sept. 22) is indeed Emily England Clyburn Day in Columbia, South Carolina.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.