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AN AMERICAN PASSAGE
ON A MUGGY, overcast September day in 2017, I stood in the cool, quiet bustle of the White House, just outside the Oval Office, waiting to see the president of the United States. In the wake of my negative critique of his comments on the race riot inspired by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville a few weeks earlier, Donald Trump had sent word that we needed to talk.
In comments enthusiastically reported by the media, I had said that the president’s statements compromised his moral authority and his reaction showed an insensitivity on racial issues. As the only black Republican United States senator, my comments had clearly struck a hot nerve with my Republican president.
With me that day was Jennifer DeCasper, my chief of staff, who had accompanied me on the ride over from the Capitol. The ride was short in distance but long in nervous anticipation of what we might face when we arrived. Jennifer had walked with me along some of our thornier paths throughout my time in Congress. Her faith and sharp wit seemed to make those walks easier.
And now, there in the car, I told Jennifer that we needed to pray, to ask the Lord for clarity and guidance in this unusual and possibly contentious meeting. She agreed that we needed to keep the Lord in the middle of all we were doing and then added: “Can you also ask that when this is over, I am still fully employable? I have a kid, you know.” I had to smile, for I knew in my heart He would be with us all the way.
To be sure, President Trump’s displeasure over my comments had a political sting for me as well as for him. Trump was very popular in South Carolina, and plenty of my constituents were displeased with me and claimed that I had been unfair to Trump. So, it was important to me that I do my best to help the president understand why I strongly disagreed with his assessment and to look for some common ground. I hoped that beneath his public bluster, the president felt the same way as I.
In weighing this dicey situation, I kept in mind that there are some things more important than politics—namely, that while there may be an ebb and flow in politics, I am going to be black for the rest of my life. I have never doubted that the good Lord had a purpose in making me black—and maybe it was for just such a time as this. For all of my life and for all of my family’s heritage, we had tried to avoid being confrontational. Always, we believed, the primary aim should be to find common ground in order to move forward.
As we made our way through the multiple layers of security checkpoints, I caught the eyes of almost everyone I interacted with. As they returned the glance, I wondered if they knew why I was there. Were the black faces looking back at me applauding me? Hoping I would stand up for their invisible pain? Wondering if I would succeed? Did the white faces understand why I had to be there? Did they understand why this was important not only to me but to all people of color, as well as to the spirit of our country?
As we waited there in the White House for a few minutes, it all crystalized for me—the truth of who I am and how my direct ancestors survived the cruel Atlantic crossing from West Africa in the stinking, sweltering belly of slave ships, reaching American soil in the early 1800s. My family’s DNA places our origins in Nigeria or Cameroon. At the end of their terrible passage, it seems clear that my direct forebears set foot on American soil at Charleston. There, they were sold at auction into human bondage to spend the rest of their days like beasts of burden, picking cotton in the broiling summer sun of South Carolina.
Now, I ask you to pause for a moment and consider what must have been the abject hopelessness of these people… their utter despair as they were disbursed across a strange new world known as the American Southland.
But somehow, somehow—and this is the divine hand of the Lord—as they settled into their new lives, some of them began to sense the tiniest flicker of hope in their hearts that right beyond their wretched present, things just might get a little bit better. It is impossible that any one of my ancestors envisioned a grand pageant in which the son of a son of a son of a slave would become a United States senator. More likely, the small hope was something more important to the moment like, maybe, just maybe, their master would give them an extra ration of meat for their Sunday meal. If my enslaved forebears had not been sustained by hope and faith, no matter how simple, then there would be no reason to keep picking cotton, even to the end of the row.
Just how my family got from then to now is an elusive journey that will never be known with any precision. Equally important is the fact that I will never understand the horrors of that journey. No matter how many prejudiced people I suffer, no matter how many offensive innuendos I encounter, I will never adequately appreciate what they endured. Whatever the details, I revere my ancestors for their courageous endurance and their faith that things might be better. I’m reminded of some advice I once got from Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, the legendary civil rights leader. He repeated some advice he had first shared with me in his office in 2011. This time, we were in Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was describing what happened on Bloody Sunday in March 1965. John Lewis described the snarling dogs and the fire hoses and how he was terribly beaten by the police and left unconscious on the pavement.
It was heart-wrenching to hear the vivid, graphic observations from this courageous man who is my senior by a quarter century. And then he delivered some advice I’ve tried to live by. “Never, ever become bitter,” he said. This is wonderful advice that I have followed since my youth because of my faith.
While I know and cherish the facts and forces that have made my success possible, I am also committed to never abandon my past. Indeed, that past is me and part of the steady continuum that is my present and future. I am committed to showing others how they, too, can come to taste and enjoy the fruits of the faith and principles that have girded who I am and how I got here.
Still, as a descendant of those in bondage, I found it emotionally reassuring to be waiting to meet with the most powerful person in the world—and to meet him on terms evened up by the full bloom of our nation’s Constitution. This along with the hard political fact that I am the duly elected representative of more than five million American citizens in the State of South Carolina. No matter what happened in this meeting, I could not stand down from my belief that Trump’s actual comments had shown a real insensitivity to the racial history of our country.
But I knew I had to keep these swirling emotions at bay. One of the strong lessons of my grandfather, about whom you will read much in this book, is to never let your emotions lead your words. You have to be dispassionate if you want others to listen. You must purge the emotional toxicity out of the equation. My job was to speak with the authority that the good Lord had given me to have this conversation with the most powerful person in the world—on his turf and in the Oval Office. These thoughts provided clarity and focus so that I could say what I thought was important. As was my habit, I chose my favorite pair of colorful socks in the great tradition of George H. W. Bush.
So, that is where we were as Jennifer and I were ushered into the Oval Office and greeted by a gracious and charming Donald Trump.
I had interacted with him in a positive way in the past. Whatever else, the man is authentic in his skin. If you don’t like him, you probably never will. Who he is, he will always be. Once you know that, you can work with it. Prior to our meeting, I had seen him in a variety of circumstances and knew that he is a classic counterpuncher. If you hit him, he is going to hit back and keep punching until he’s had enough and thinks he’s won. That’s just who he is.
In the Oval Office, we were sitting across from his desk and in front of the fireplace. In the pictures I saw later, my colorfulsocks are shining brightly, but President Trump is dead serious, totally engaged and listening.
He asked me to explain my comments and to help him understand where he was off base. I went through what it is like to endure racism of any sort and how it affects all people of color. I told him how his comments that there were good people on both sides in the Charlottesville tragedy hurt my heart. I explained that my growing up decades ago in a much different South Carolina meant daily encounters that left me with an absolute sense of dejection, the sense of not being complete because of the color of my skin, and having it be reinforced on a daily basis. I explained how it leaves a stain that you can’t get off, especially since you have done nothing wrong.
The president sat there quietly. Other than a few questions, a few flicks of his eyebrows, he really offered nothing beyond exuding an air of listening and understanding. I had expected hard, defensive pushback from him, but what I got back at the end was like sweet music from the angels, manna from heaven.
With a tone that I interpreted as sincere humility, he looked at me and quietly said, “Tell me what I can do to be helpful to the people I’ve offended.”
I was authentically surprised. The president was offering an olive branch, and in what seemed like divine intervention, the good Lord had prepared me with the right answer for an important moment.
For decades, the federal government has struggled over how to tackle poverty. It was not for lack of effort or due to bad intentions, but rather from relying upon a faulty model. For more than fifty years, starting with President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” the federal government has dumped huge amounts of money into an ever-growing web of bureaucracy and red tape. Yet poverty rates remain basically unchanged since the early 1970s, especially in the black community. The safety net should be a trampoline catapulting folks toward success—not a trap that keeps people exactly where they are.
Perhaps it comes down to how we see human nature. I certainly know we all have our faults, and you’ll read about some of mine later. But I also believe most people are good. It takes a pessimistic view of our fellow man and his potential to think he needs the government to take care of every single thing. That’s why I believe that we have to change not only the way government is involved in helping those in need, but how we as a individuals help them as well.
In Luke, the Bible reminds us that to whom much is given, much is required. While it often seems that some want a culture war, pitting economic and racial classes against each other, I am looking to ignite a cultural renaissance. Some use envy or distrust as their engine; I want to use hope and opportunity to power a future where we work together to build a stronger country.
With those concepts in mind, my team and I, along with EIG, the Economic Innovation Group, had been working for several years on a concept called Opportunity Zones, a piece of legislation designed to give American businesses and individuals a way to invest freely in our nation’s most distressed communities without the federal government getting in the way. Under this program, investors are given tax breaks for investing in areas designated as “opportunity zones,” which are places that investors might not feel compelled to invest in without the tax incentives. For example, instead of building its new factory in a community that’s already well-off and developed, a manufacturer might decide to put down roots in, say, a small tract of land outside Charleston, South Carolina, that’s more in need of the economic boost.
The idea, of course, is to have these investors put down roots and become part of the communities they invest in. No flipping a burned-out rowhouse into a storage business and then leaving town. No putting up a five-star hotel in the middle of an empty street and then heading out as soon as the tax rebate kicks in. To qualify for the tax incentives, investors have to be serious about their investments, getting to know the communities they’re joining, ensuring that the people already living there are involved in the decision making. In fact, investors can’t even take advantage of the tax breaks unless they keep their investments for at least five years, and additional benefits don’t kick in until they’ve been in their communities for seven years.
If I’ve learned anything from studying our country’s efforts to combat poverty in the twentieth century, it’s that business owners know better than the government how to spend their money, and I designed opportunity zones with that in mind. This was something I hoped President Trump, who’d been a developer and a businessman all his life, would understand.
So, with a deep breath, I explained to President Trump my belief that we must find fresh ways to alleviate the terrible poverty that is the source of so many of our ills—including the plague of racism. The concept of Opportunity Zones includes employing incentives in the tax code to harness private money for investments into distressed communities.
President Trump was not aware that this idea was being discussed in the Senate as we worked to put together the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. I explained the highlights and concepts, adding that what was most needed, at the very moment we were talking, was a big push from the president. With little hesitation, Trump flatly stated that he would see what he could do. The very next day I saw a news report in which he was talking about the importance of developing Opportunity Zones.
Today, Opportunity Zones are enshrined in law and, at this writing, $67 billion has been committed through opportunity funds to flow into impovershed communities. Geographically, according to the IRS, Opportunity Zones have been designated in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories. Dear to my heart is the impressive list of zones all over my beloved state of South Carolina, including some impoverished areas where my own family is affected.
I am profoundly grateful to President Trump for listening to me and trying to better understand race relations in our country. But what about his simply and earnestly asking me what he could do to help? I cannot overlook the striking serendipity of the timing, that my team was right in the middle of pushing Opportunity Zones in the Senate tax bill, just when he asked!
Well, I think that remarkable coincidence drew its power from somewhere else—and from something other than my colorful socks. I believe it was providential.
A favorite saying of mine is one that was often used by Alex Haley, who in 1976 published Roots, a huge best-selling book that is considered the germinating force behind the explosion of interest in genealogy by the African-American community. At the height of his fame, Alex Haley would remind people:
“When you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you can be sure he did not get there by himself.”
Well, that’s me. Whatever success I have enjoyed in both business and politics, I have been blessed by family, friends, business associates, and, most of all in recent times, my remarkable congressional staff. And my mission in life is to tell my story in a way that fosters confidence and understanding about the progress we have made as a country. Done effectively, the story can show all Americans these bedrock principles and how they can lift us all to a material and spiritual prosperity that will shine as a beacon for the rest of the world.
“To every kid growing up in poverty wondering if fitting in means dumbing down, the answer is no… to every single mom who struggles to make ends meet, who wonders if her efforts are in vain, they are not.”
—FROM MY 2014 ELECTION NIGHT ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
THE ROAD TO
“WHEN I GROW UP, I want to be a football player. The first thing I’ll do is buy a house for my mom.”
If we have heard it once, we have heard it a thousand times from so many kids growing up in impoverished neighborhoods. I was one of those boys with the dream. So many of us watch our moms and grandmothers leave early and come home late, sacrificing their own lives to put food on our table and clothes on our backs. Providing for mom and protecting her becomes the key motivation. When I was a kid, I was sold on the notion that a career in sports or entertainment would take me out of poverty and help me make my mom’s dreams come true. And this was before professional athletes were paid the astronomical sums they receive today!
PASSION TO PLAY
I started playing little league football when I was seven years old, and my first team was the Cowboys. That began two of my long-term loves—football and the Dallas Cowboys. My athletic idol was Tony Dorsett, a Hall of Fame running back for Dallas. I knew that if I could grow up and play as well as he did, then I could give my mom everything she had ever wanted.
Two goals began to fuse together: my passion to play in the National Football League, or at least be drafted by the Cowboys, and my passion to watch the moving truck move my mom into a nice house with a garage. High school football became a singular focus as I pursued those dreams. As is the case with many poor kids in the inner city, I felt that football was my ticket out of poverty and scraping to get by. It was my path into abundance and prosperity.
Chasing down the dream, I played on my high school team, and I had a very strong junior year personally. In fact, it would be twenty years before I learned how much of an impact that season made in my local community. Two decades later, I was on a men’s retreat with a friend named Bob, who was also my roommate that weekend. We were talking football, and he went back to the glory years of his senior football season in 1982. Unbeknownst to him, that was my junior season. He started talking about that year and how his school, the Goose Creek Gators, had perhaps the best season in their school’s history. For the first time ever, they had beaten the Summerville Green Wave, the number one team in the state. Then, he said, the next week they played Stall High School.
Bob told me all about this running back who ran over his team, eluding the defensive line and running over the defensive backs. He went on and on for fifteen minutes about this player, and how he could not remember his name but that he was a great player.
Finally, I could not take it any longer. I burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny!” Bob demanded.
I jumped up on a chair, threw the Heisman pose at him, and said, “I went left, I went right, and I ran all over you guys, because I was that running back!”
He literally pushed me off the chair and playfully threw me to the floor. He could not believe that number 44 from Stall High School was the guy standing in front of him now. It was one of the funniest moments I’ve ever had at a Christian men’s conference. God must have a sense of humor to have made us roommates.
AIMING FOR THE TOP TIER
Back in the actual 1982, we finished my junior season with a losing record, a huge defeat of Goose Creek, and a lot of promise for a winning senior season. We had a solid backfield that would attract attention from many schools for a few of us, and we were excited about the upcoming season. I had garnered attention from some schools, but I wanted the experience and exposure from playing at a large Division I program.
The summer before the season started, I decided to team up with my college football friends who were succeeding at the next level. They would provide me with the necessary workout regimen and focus to capture the attention of the scouts, as well as solidifying the next step on my journey to secure my mom’s financial future.
Day after day, practice after practice, I endured the unyielding tasks of evolving into a top tier college recruit. I was running the forty-yard dash faster and improving my weightlifting commitment, which in turn produced a stronger, healthier body and physique. In that summer between my junior and senior year, my mother bought a small house in Summerville outside of the Stall school border, which allowed me to play football for Summerville High School. I started August practices with the best focus, the greatest discipline, and the most energy ever.
Summerville was a football town with a powerhouse football program led by Coach John McKissick. Coach McKissick later became the winningest football coach in American history, winning more than 600 games for the Summerville High School Green Wave. I played running back, and at 5”11’, 205 pounds, I was still fast enough to make the state championships in the 100 meters. Back in the early 1980s, a guy that big running that fast was pretty rare, and Coach McKissick helped feed my hopes of a football future. However, my heart remained at Stall High School, and I received permission to return to Stall and my teammates and friends. Back at Stall, we were certainly excited to take on the Green Wave later that season.
But for the time being, two-a-days continued. Water was a luxury. Wind sprints became our frenemies. And the hot, humid South Carolina Lowcountry weather was ever present. It was 80 degrees when we woke up, and everything just got hotter all day long. We were worked until we dropped, often in full pads. I particularly remember an exercise called the Monkey Roll, a drill for agility and conditioning, where basically you and two teammates alternated rolling on the ground and then jumping over each other. It was truly diabolical.
Two-a-days are grueling practices that include calisthenics, contact, and sweat-drenched drills. Working yourself and pushing to your limits was not uncommon during two-a-day practices, because it was in these types of practices that you forged the strength and commitment to turn a losing season into a winning one. We were stoked to be on the field even when we were nauseous, exhausted, and dehydrated.
On a morning toward the end of August and the beginning of the season, the routine continued as normal. I woke up blissfully unaware that it might be the last day of my football career or, even, the last day or my life. That day changed everything.
THE DAY WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
My mom and I shared a car in those days, and her workday started early. Unless I could convince one of my teammates to pick me up before practices and bring me home after, I had to get up as early as she did. Most mornings, I drove my mom to work so I could have the car for the day and make it to my two-a-days, which meant we had to be out by 6:15.
I was not then—and I am not now—a morning person, so this was a daily battle for us. I usually woke to the sound of my mother’s voice around 6 a.m., calling me with the urgency of a single mother who depended on her teenage son for her ride to work. I heard a lot of “Timmy, I told you already to get your butt out of that bed!”
My older brother, Ben, was attending college at the University of South Carolina, meaning it was just my mom and me in the house. The car we shared was meaningful to us, in that it was my mom’s first brand-new car. Back then, “brand-new” to us meant we bought a car with low mileage from a Budget Rental. It was a 1982 Toyota hatchback, and the sort of brown color you would associate more with a bad 1970s shag carpet than a car.
Those were long days for my mom and for me. She was typically working a sixteen-hour shift as a nurse’s assistant, and then she came home to take care of our home as best she could. As for me, in addition to two-a-days, I was also working a few days a week at the movie theater until around midnight. I certainly took advantage of our free popcorn policy for employees, but the nights were still long. The last show typically started around 9 p.m., which meant we were left closing the theater at basically midnight. At best, that meant six hours of sleep.
We had also recently moved from my hometown of North Charleston, South Carolina, to a then-sleepy little town called Summerville, which doubled the commute time to downtown Charleston for my mother’s job. So not only was my mom trying to wake me up to go to work, but I also knew that meant a forty-minute drive downtown, then back to North Charleston for a couple of brutal practices, and then to work at the movie theater.
This was all on top of the challenges you face growing up in a poor, single-parent household. My dad was not around, and on the rare occasions when I talked with him, I was reminded that I was glad he was not. My mom was working herself to the bone trying to keep a roof over our head, and that meant we did not get to see her as often as I think any of us would have preferred. In keeping with the transient nature of poverty, we had moved nearly half a dozen times in a decade. While I was publicly affable and loved to hear myself talk in school, there is no doubt that was covering quite a bit of anxiety and general unease about my place in the world.
So, it’s safe to say, some mornings I was exasperated. A lot of mornings I was dead tired. And on this particular day, that led to me falling asleep behind the wheel.
I had dropped my mom off at work, and I was heading back up Interstate 26 toward Summerville. My eyelids felt like anvils, and I knew I was in trouble. I knew I had to do something to help me stay awake. I started to turn the heat all the way up, and then all the way back down. You know you are tired when your instinct includes turning up the heat in the sweltering heat of a South Carolina summer day.
When the heat made it worse, I opted for as cold as it could go. I switched over to the air conditioner, and turned it all the way up, and all the way back down. That worked for a few minutes, and then I had to figure something else out. I was traveling 65 miles per hour on the interstate when I started to roll the windows up and down. I cranked the radio. Blasting the music seemed like my last failed attempt. But a forty-minute drive is a long time to try to keep yourself awake, and I started nodding off.
I remember starting to drift between lines, and I recall snapping myself back awake a couple of times. But, eventually my body’s demand for sleep won, and that was not good news for me—or for my mom’s brand-new car.
My next memory is the sound of rubber tires kicking pebbles and gravel all over the place on the side of the road. As I started to go off the side of the road, the sound really grabbed my attention. I think we can all imagine what happens when a sixteen-year-old wakes up while driving 65 miles per hour on the side of the interstate—he panics! Instinctively, I simultaneously jerked the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes, causing my car to literally flip its way through morning rush hour. As my car tortuously made its way back through the eastbound traffic, the force and velocity of the car flipping brought me all the way across the westbound traffic as well.
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Center Street