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James Clyburn says he and John Lewis feared "defund the police" would undermine Black Lives Matter movement

Rep. Clyburn on Biden's win & funding police
Representative Jim Clyburn: John Lewis would never say "defund the police" 11:45

Though a Democrat has won the presidency, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn warned his party is being destroyed by the "defund the police" movement that arose over the summer.

"'Defund the police' is killing our party, and we've got to stop it," the South Carolina kingmaker said in an interview with CBSN Monday. It was a topic he said he and the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis discussed.

"John Lewis and I were very concerned when these slogans came out about 'defund the police,'" he said. "We sat together on the House floor and talked about how that slogan... could undermine the BLM movement, just as 'burn, baby, burn' destroyed our movement back in the '60s."

"John would never yell, 'burn, baby, burn;" John would never say, 'defund the police,' as progressive as he was, and I'm just as progressive as anybody else," Clyburn said. He went on to say that "we just lost Joe Cunningham," a South Carolina Democratic House member who lost his reelection bid against Republican Nancy Mace. "And we lost him over 'defund the police.'"

"Burn, baby, burn" was a slogan that emerged during the 1965 Watts riots, chanted by Black people who set cars and buildings on fire. Clyburn said that John Lewis was removed as head of the civil rights group they had founded, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by "burn, baby, burn" proponents.

He said they didn't want to see the same thing happen to Black Lives Matter, and he criticized the term "defund the police" for its lack of clarity.

"When I talked to my friends about this, and they say, 'that's not really what we mean,' and I say, 'Well, in this business, you've gotta say what you mean, and you gotta mean what you say, and if you have to explain what you mean, you are losing the argument."

Clyburn went on to say that the nation has always been racially divided. "What we need to do as a country is learn how to mitigate those factors," he told CBSN's Anne-Marie Greene and Vladimir Duthiers, adding that race will always be present. "Let's just embrace it and do what we can to get beyond it."

He also talked about the outcome of the presidential election. It's cyclical, he said. "Donald Trump got elected because  people thought we had gone too far to the left."

Then the nation "moved too far to the right, and the voters decided to send it back to the left."

Most believe Clyburn played a pivotal role in Joe Biden's presidential fortunes. His endorsement came days before the South Carolina primary and galvanized Black voters to support Biden after he had suffered losses in the earliest primary states.  

"I always knew I was gonna vote for Joe Biden," he told CBSN, noting that at Biden had lost in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada before the South Carolina primary. He pointed out that he had worked to ensure that people of color "would have a say-so in who our nominee would be," and his state has an electorate that is more diverse than that of Iowa or New Hampshire, both mostly White. Fifty-six percent of South Carolina's Democratic primary voters were Black this year, and most of them voted for Biden.

Clyburn also talked about how his endorsement came about, recalling that he was attending a funeral a few days before the South Carolina debate. "A lady called me to her side," he said, and she "told me she needed to know who I'd vote for. And when I told her, she snapped her head back, and she looked at me in such a way that I cannot explain, and then she said to me, 'I needed to hear that, and this community needs to hear from you.'"

"I thought about it all day," he continued, "and I made the decision that I was going to make my endorsement and do it in such a way that the community would hear from me."

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