Slain Senator, Clementa Pinckney, Remembered as 'Moral Conscience' of South Carolina Legislature

Clementa Pinckney was killed in the Charleston church shooting, but his legislative legacies will live on.
by | June 26, 2015

As a pastor, Clementa Pinckney spoke at rallies protesting the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. As a state senator, he championed legislation making South Carolina the first state to require all law enforcement agencies to use body cameras.

"He never disconnected his ministry, as a minister, from his ministry as a public servant," said Marguerite Archie-Hudson, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.

The governor of South Carolina signed the body-camera bill into law on June 10 -- exactly a week before Pinckney and eight other African-Americans were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

President Obama will deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral on Friday. Thousands of mourners paid their respects Wednesday inside the rotunda of the state capitol building, where Pinckney's open casket lay in state.

"It's a tragic loss to the Senate and to the state of South Carolina," said Republican state Sen. Thomas Alexander.

Pinckney, a Democrat, was 41 years old. He was called both to the ministry and to politics at a young age. He began preaching at the age of 13 and later served as a House page. At 23, he became the youngest African-American ever elected to the South Carolina House. Four years after that, in 2000, he was elected to the state Senate.

He was not a "fire-and-brimstone kind of guy," Archie-Hudson said. "He really was a guy who thought if you could get people to the table, whether it was at the church or at the legislature, you could find common ground."

Pinckney, pictured in 2012 (Andy Shain/The State/TNS)

Pinckney had a big, baritone voice but a calming presence. He was "always positive," Sen. Alexander said, always eager to find consensus, happy to hear out people with whom he disagreed politically. Alexander worked with Pinckney on nutrition programs, including Healthy Bucks, which provides coupons doubling the value of food stamps for purchases of fruits and vegetables made at farmer's markets and groceries. Without Pinckney's leadership, Alexander said, "that initiative would never have been embraced."

"This was the first ever state-level legislation in the country to support this type of programming," said Carrie Draper, policy director at a University of South Carolina nutrition research center. "His efforts have already led to hundreds of South Carolinians gaining access to quality produce that they wouldn't have otherwise and for dozens of small-scale family farmers to increase their income -- numbers and impacts that will only continue to grow as the program expands because of the foundation he laid."

Pinckney represented a district spread across six mostly rural counties, with a land mass roughly the size of Rhode Island. He focused on education as well as economic development issues, such as improving port infrastructure and securing tax incentives for construction of an upscale outlet mall in his district.

Hours before he was killed, Pinckney pressed colleagues to increase benefits for foster children. "Ought we not look out for people we represent who have no other recourse, even those who don't contribute to our campaigns or don't even vote?" Pinckney asked during a 2009 debate over payday lending. "Are we doing our jobs?"

Pinckney "was the moral conscience of the General Assembly," said Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who credited Pinckney's floor speech with pushing through the police body-camera bill.

In his May 9 speech, Pinckney invoked "doubting" Thomas, the apostle who refused to believe in Christ's resurrection, "except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails." Those who similarly could not believe a police officer would shoot someone repeatedly in the back were convinced by a video, Pinckney said. "I believe we all were like Thomas and said, 'I believe,'" he said.

Pinckney, who came from a long line of preacher-politicians, was always conscious of his place in history, both as pastor of one of the oldest African-American churches in the country and as a politician trying to make a difference in the lives of others.

Obama pauses while speaking about the church shooting in Charleston, S.C. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

His death, along with those of the other victims, has helped make the case that his state, the region and the nation needs to rethink its own history and the symbols we use to mark the past, such as the Confederate flag.

"Part of the legacy of Sen. Pinckney will be that his very life made the case about why it was so important to have the hard conversation, and stay with it long enough to find some common ground," said Archie-Hudson.

"If it turns out the South Carolina legislature does what it says it will do (in removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds), Sen. Pinckney's and those other deaths will end up having a profound impact on the future of South Carolina," she said. "That's the highest legacy and gift we could give to Sen. Pinckney."