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Black History Month: Tim Scott on What His Election Meant, and What Obama’s Election Meant to His Grandfather

Roll Call's series with lawmakers and Capitol Hill figures continues

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott says he stands on the “shoulders of giants who paid such a high price so that I could represent … the entire state.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott says he stands on the “shoulders of giants who paid such a high price so that I could represent … the entire state.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Tim Scott sees a lot of progress in his election and the election of the first African-American president more than eight years ago. Both show “what’s possible,” he said. 

Roll Call’s series of interviews with lawmakers and Capitol Hill figures during Black History Month continues with our discussion with the South Carolina Republican.

Watch more interviews and the video, “Black History and America’s Capitol,” which combines all these talks, at

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Roll Call: Sen. Tim Scott, you are the first popularly elected black senator from the South since Reconstruction, and that makes you a very influential, historic figure. I know you’ve got a job to do just like any other senator, but that’s particularly meaningful, is it not?

Sen. Tim Scott: Certainly, it is. It says a lot about who we are as a nation, in terms of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, I think. Sitting in the seat that I sit in, it really reflects on the evolution of the average voter in the South, specifically in South Carolina. I ran for Congress against the son of Strom Thurmond, in the place, the location where the first shot of the Civil War was heard. And the voters of that congressional district elected me to be their Congress member. It tells me that the human heart continues to evolve and that the transformative power that exists in life is real. And as much as it is a blessing for me to serve, it says so much more about the very people who allowed me to serve by voting for me. So, I’m excited about the success and the distance that we have crossed as a nation and specifically as a state. It just says so much about where we could go — what’s possible.

RC: A lot of people might have this idea of South Carolina as just being part of the deep South, but it has extra significance in terms of African-American history and culture. Tell us a little about that — the parts of the African-American experience that are reflected at home.

TS: The No. 1 tourist destination in the nation, four years running, I believe, is Charleston, South Carolina. And the epicenter of a lot of that activity is Market Street. Between 40 and 50 percent of all slaves that came into this country came to Market Street. It was a place where you marketed black people. To think about that place at that time and where we are today … it is hard not to understand and appreciate the pain, the suffering, the challenges, the disgust and now, the brilliance, the life, the vitality and the hopefulness that is hardwired into one location where people from around the world come to visit. Just to walk on the street where … you had human beings on auction. That is just devastating to think about, tragic. And at the same time, to fast-forward a couple of hundred years and to understand the power of change, to understand the power of hope, to understand the pain and suffering … that makes me possible. I always say, because it’s true, that I literally stand on the shoulders of giants who paid such a high price so that I could represent … the entire state. So it is not lost on me the pain and suffering and sacrifice, nor is it lost on me the growth, the tremendous transformation that is possible within human beings.

RC: You’re from a different political party from the most recent president, but what was going through your mind when you saw former President Barack Obama’s helicopter take off after eight years of the first black president’s term? TS: Probably, I think I went backwards eight years. Back to November of 2008. I was driving my grandfather to vote — I think he was around 86 years old or so. And he just could not believe that there was a chance that this country, his country, would elect a black man to be president. … I would like to say that [it was] after the results came in that my grandfather was teary-eyed — it wasn’t. It was actually on the way in to vote, where he had tears in his eyes, which was only the second time I’ve seen him cry — in 2001, when his wife died and in 2008, to go vote for President Obama. And he was illiterate, so I had to go push the button for him. So I went into the voting booth with him and, he wanted me to get it right. “Don’t mess this one up.” It moved me, I was crying with him, basically. What a hopeful day, for this nation. What a hopeful day. I hope that we relive that level of optimism about who we can be as one nation under God. Black History and America’s Capitol 

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