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Biden joins an HBCU in celebrating its graduates — including an old congressional ally

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., second from left, holds his history degree with South Carolina State University Interim President Alexander Conyers, second from right, on stage with President Joe Biden, left, and Rodney Jenkins, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, right, during the South Carolina State University's 2021 Fall Commencement Ceremony in Orangeburg, S.C., Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Carolyn Kaster
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AP
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., second from left, holds his history degree with South Carolina State University Interim President Alexander Conyers, second from right, on stage with President Joe Biden, left, and Rodney Jenkins, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, right, during the South Carolina State University's 2021 Fall Commencement Ceremony in Orangeburg, S.C., Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

Sixty years after Jim Clyburn received his diploma from South Carolina State University by mail, the House majority whip returned to his alma mater to march alongside current graduates and receive his diploma in person from the president of the United States.

Clyburn, the sole congressional Democrat from South Carolina, delivered commencement remarks to December graduates and talked about his time at the HBCU, where he met his late wife, Emily.

"She came to this campus from a little 22-acre farm in Berkeley County. I don't know what was expected of her but I know what she did," he said. "She came across a little wayward guy from Sumter, South Carolina, and turned him into a U.S. congressman."

Clyburn, a longtime ally of President Biden, shared how his wife pulled him aside in 2020 and insisted on their support of Biden for president.

"She said to me, 'If we want to succeed in this upcoming election, we had better nominate Joe Biden,' " he said. "She passed away before the South Carolina primary, but what she said to me that night stayed on my mind. When I looked among those 20-some odd candidates running for the Democratic nomination, several of whom were very close friends of ours, I remembered what she said to me. And I followed her directions, just as I had for the 58 years that we were married."

President Biden delivered the keynote address at the South Carolina State University's 2021 Fall Commencement Ceremony in Orangeburg, S.C., Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
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AP
President Biden delivered the keynote address at South Carolina State University's fall commencement ceremony on Friday.

Biden, who delivered the ceremony's keynote speech, credited Clyburn's public endorsement as a pivotal moment in reviving his sluggish campaign.

"I got what we call in my old neighborhood in Claymont, Del., I got shellacked in the first two primaries, and I kept saying, 'I'm waiting to go to South Carolina,' " he said.

Biden acknowledged the challenges facing graduates today

Biden also reflected on the importance of historically Black colleges and universities in his own political career.

"The reason I got elected 1972 was because of an HBCU called Delaware State University," he said. "So, folks, you're inheriting an incredible tradition, graduating from this university."

Biden acknowledged the challenges graduates face: the continuation of the coronavirus pandemic, an uncertain economy and "the reckoning on race not seen since the '50s and '60s."

"No graduating class gets to choose the world under which they graduate," he said. "A few classes, every once in a few generations, enter at a point in American history where it actually has a chance to change the trajectory of the country. That's not hyperbole. You face that inflection point today."

Biden touted his administration's legislative achievements to date, including a bipartisan infrastructure bill that puts significant investments in expanding broadband access.

"Everyone should be able to access high-speed internet — urban, suburban and rural," he said. "No student should have to go to a coffee shop or a fast food restaurant to get the internet so they can do their homework."

Biden made a plea for passage of voting rights bills

Biden's address to graduates comes as disagreements among congressional Democrats have delayed passing what would be his administration's hallmark piece of legislation: a roughly $2 trillion social and climate spending package.

Biden also issued a passionate plea for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would ensure that states have early voting, make Election Day a public holiday and secure the availability of mail-in voting. Democratic lawmakers say these measures are necessary to combat a wave of new restrictions from Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has described the legislation as an attempt by Democrats to have the federal government overhaul elections.

Both bills have been been blocked by Senate Republicans.

"I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee for a long time. At the end of my stint, before I became vice president, I was able to pass the extension the Voting Rights Act for 25 years and guess what? Convinced Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to vote for it," Biden recalled. "I thought, 'We're finally, finally finally beginning to move.' But this new sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion — it's unAmerican, it's undemocratic and sadly, it is unprecedented since Reconstruction."

Biden, who often talked about the "battle for the soul of the nation" during his campaign, also addressed the racism that continues to plague the country.

"We continue to confront the oldest and darkest forces in this nation: hate and racism," he said. "You can defeat hate but you can't eliminate it. It just slides back under a rock and when given oxygen by political leaders, it comes out ugly and mean as it was before. We can't give it any oxygen. We have to step on it. We have to respond to it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.