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Civil Rights Activist and Majority Whip's Wife Dead at 80

The Clyburns raised millions for scholarships
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 19, 2019 5:45 PM CDT
Emily Clyburn, Librarian and Lawmaker's Wife, Dies at 80
Emily Clyburn, bottom right, and her husband, Rep. James Clyburn, top right, greet people at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 2015.   (AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File)

(Newser) – Emily Clyburn, the wife of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina who helped raise millions of dollars to help students attend the alma mater they shared, died Thursday in Columbia, according to the congressman's office. She was 80 years old. Rep. Clyburn and the woman known affectionately to many as "Ms. Emily" were married for nearly six decades, the AP reports, after meeting as students at South Carolina State University. Rep. Clyburn loved to tell the story of how they met in jail after they were both arrested protesting segregation at an Orangeburg drugstore counter. The congressman said romance wasn't on his mind as he was let out—he just wanted something to eat. Emily Clyburn walked up to him with a hamburger. As he reached for it, she tore it, keeping half for herself. "I tell everybody she got me for half a hamburger," James Clyburn said.

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Emily Clyburn became a public school librarian and a medical librarian. The couple raised millions of dollars for the endowment and need-based scholarships at their alma mater, from which Emily Clyburn received an honorary doctorate in 2010. A pedestrian bridge in Orangeburg linking S.C. State to student housing bears her name. Sen. Lindsey Graham called her "one of the most kind and dynamic people I had ever met" and someone who "lived a consequential life changing South Carolina and the United States for the better." Rep. Clyburn has said he thought about leaving Congress when Republicans won control of the US House in 2010. His wife talked him out of it—joking she didn't need him around home all the time, but also telling him he had too much left to accomplish. "As always, she was right," Clyburn said. A celebration of Emily Clyburn's life and legacy will be held Sunday in West Columbia and Monday in Charleston.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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