Still, Clyburn hasn't shied away from criticizing the Republicans that defend the flag. "I know there are a lot of people in this body — I know where they're from, and it's shocking that they would play into it," he said.
He painted the issue as a continuation of the GOP's history with the Confederate flag. Former Sen. Strom Thurmond — a segregationist who was a Democrat for the first portion of his career — used the flag at his rallies, Clyburn said, and the state's Republican leaders would occasionally put flag-related questions on the ballot to boost primary turnout. "They used that flag to organize the Republican Party throughout South Carolina," he said. "That was their symbol, their emblem. If you organized your whole party around the flag, you gotta know some of that would stick coming up here [to Washington]."
Clyburn also talked at length about his initial reaction to the shooting, and his role in the state's response. When he heard the news, Clyburn said, he didn't immediately process just how devastating it would be. "I was just in shock and disbelief," he said. "About 2:30 in the morning of Thursday when I came to grips with the fact that this was real, I still did not know the full extent of it until I landed in Charleston later that day. "¦ It all struck me as being really real when on my way into Charleston from the airport, I got this call on my cell phone from the president's obvious he had information that I did not have, and that's when it really struck me as to how grave the situation was."
It was that day that Gov. Nikki Haley approached Clyburn and asked him to reach out if he needed anything. Days later, after Clyburn had begun to speak out against the Confederate battle flag, Haley asked him to stand with her as she called for its removal from the grounds of the state capitol. A little more than two weeks later, the flag was lowered.
Meanwhile, Clyburn has pushed for a more substantive response to the shooting. He's joined calls for an expansion of Medicaid in South Carolina, and he introduced legislation in the House to tighten gun laws. All the while, he's continued to push for an overhaul of the Voting Rights Act, joined by a Democratic chorus that continues to hammer Republicans on the issue.
But Republicans weren't the only ones Clyburn took to task for image problems. He criticized a pair of Democratic primary contenders for their early performance on the campaign trail. "[Sen.] Bernie [Sanders] and [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O'Malley have suffered growing pains," he said. "Hopefully they get better, but right now they're not conducting themselves in a way that would make us all proud."
O'Malley in particular faced criticism after telling a Netroots Nation crowd: "Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter." Clyburn understood why the activists in attendance were upset. "When they ask a question, answer the question. If someone asks me, 'Do black lives matter?' 'Yes, they do. What's the next question?' If you start mincing words and trying to calibrate your answers, that's what got O'Malley in trouble. "¦ Black people always react negatively to any attempt to dilute their importance."