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Clementa Pinckney and the True Meaning of Grace

A young state lawmaker’s life, dedicated to helping the most needy, was cut short by a white supremacist in a Charleston church. What happened there, in Buffalo and elsewhere is symbolic of a society corroding from inside out.

Charleston Church Shooting Photo Gallery
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney, a state senator and pastor at Mother Emanuel AME Church, died Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in the mass shooting at the church by the hands of Dylann Roof.
(Grace Beahm/AP)
It was a hot evening in July 2008, the night before the largest daily newspaper in South Carolina was scheduled to announce that I was one of three finalists for the presidency of the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort. I rushed to inform my boss so he wouldn’t first read about it the next morning along with everybody else. I had carefully cultivated relationships with state officials on both sides of the aisle, but none more important than that of a young African American state senator by the name of Clementa C. Pinckney.

Sen. Pinckney was also the senior pastor at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. You may remember that church as the one where in 2015 President Barack Obama eulogized Pinckney, one of nine members who had been murdered by an avowed white supremacist, and spontaneously broke out in an enviable rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

I first met Pinckney in 2008, and we clicked immediately. We both envisioned that we would work closely together to improve the lives and earning potential of more Black and low-income students from the Lowcountry. The indigenous African American people there, known as the Gullah, once owned and controlled most of the coastal region and sea islands including Daufuskie, Hilton Head and St. Helena. Most of their land has been appropriated by purchasers and investors primarily from the northern and midwestern parts of the U.S. The Gullah people today live as second-class citizens, and if ever I were in the right position (like the college presidency), I wanted to try to do something about this.

Pinckney’s district also included the infamous area along I-95 called the “corridor of shame,” so named for its poor performing and under-resourced rural schools. Pinckney and I were undaunted by the challenges this and other issues presented. We frequently discussed working together to tackle them with the backing of his senatorial office and the resources of the technical college. We both believed we could help more students finish high school and obtain credentials in high-demand occupational fields like hospitality, resort management and technical positions affiliated with the port of Charleston.

Despite the support of Pinckney and others, for reasons unbeknownst to us my dreams were not to be realized. The college’s local commission offered the job to another candidate. I was deeply disappointed, but Pinckney felt betrayed. “They just lost their strongest advocate,” he said to me after a few choice words.

After this went down, he kept in touch, though sparingly. Then one morning in 2015, from the chair of my dental hygienist, I heard that Clementa was among those who had died in a mass killing in his church. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, had shot Pinckney and eight other church members to death as they were participating in a prayer meeting. Roof had joined in the prayer meeting for a short while before he opened fire. He was captured in North Carolina the morning after the shooting. When he complained he was hungry, police brought him a meal from Burger King. Many identified this as an act of compassion on the part of the police, but I believe every criminal suspect in custody should be treated humanely.

Yet I can’t help but contrast the police’s behavior in these instances to its too-frequent treatment of Black suspects killed without provocation or threatening harm to the police or bystanders. Who could ever forget police in armored vehicles tossing water bottles to Kyle Rittenhouse — and thanking him for his presence at a racial-justice protest — in August 2020 as the white 17-year-old, armed with an assault rifle, walked down the streets of Kenosha, Wis., before fatally shooting two protesters and injuring another? And Payton Gendron, the alleged killer of 10 African Americans in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket earlier this month who was allowed to surrender peacefully, has been referred to by some as a troubled teenager rather than the radicalized white supremacist who fears being replaced by Blacks, Jews and darker-skinned immigrants that he clearly is.

I wonder what these assassins’ formative years might have been like when they were digesting regular diets of hate, racial replacement theories and open calls to take up arms against Blacks, Jews and immigrants. Were they heeding the sentiments of one replacement-theory manifesto writer who argued that “we must inevitably correct the disaster of hedonistic, nihilistic individualism”? Mass killers are symbols of the underbelly of a society that is corroding from inside out. Public officials and leaders who refuse to condemn or who remain silent while these ideas become normalized are participating in the rot of what used to be considered one of the world’s great democracies.

Pinckney’s death struck me particularly hard because not only was he a friend, he was a public official who really cared. In me, he found a kindred spirit. But what I really liked about him was that he never stopped thinking about how to help his most needy constituents. This is a lesson of all times for all public officials to heed.

His life was celebrated for the better part of a week across South Carolina. At his funeral, President Obama exhorted: “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

Most of the victims of mass shootings in the U.S. — there have been at least 274 since 2009, resulting in 1,536 people killed and 983 wounded — may not be remembered beyond their families and friends. Others, like Clementa Pinckney, will never be forgotten. As the nation struggles to recover from yet another mass shooting, this time the slaughter of innocent schoolchildren and teachers in Texas, we all should not forget the words of our former president, who reminded us of the true meaning of grace: “We may not have earned it … but we got it all the same. … It is up to us now to make the most of it.”

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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