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Clementa Pinckney's Political Ministry: "Righteous Indignation in the Face of Injustices"

Sean Rayford, Getty Images News

The last time that State Senator Tom Davis saw Clementa Pinckney, the two legislators had just wrapped up their votes for the day in the South Carolina Statehouse, where Pinckney served alongside his work as a Christian pastor. “He told me he wasn’t going to be able to stick around,” recalls Davis. “He was heading down to Charleston—he had an appointment in the church.”

Hours later, Davis heard that a shooting had happened in a Charleston church and immediately made a round of panicked calls. Around midnight, he discovered that his colleague was shot and killed, along with eight others in the African Methodical Episcopal church where State Senator Pinckney was leading a Bible study group. 

Since he was first elected in 1997 at the age of 23—the youngest African-American to serve in the statehouse—Pinckney was part of a long Christian tradition of prophetic witness that put social justice and progressive change at the heart of his ministry. “There many people who say, why would you as a preacher, why would you as a pastor be involved in public life? Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and the community in which our congregation resides,” Pinckney said in 2013. As State Representative Carl Anderson, who is a pastor at another AME Church, told me: “We were serving—serving people in the public, and people in the church.” 

In the final weeks of his life, Pinckney focused on passing a bill requiring all South Carolina police officers to wear body cameras after Walter Scott’s death. And he rallied his colleagues to act by invoking a passage from the Bible. It was the day before Easter when Scott, an unarmed African-American man, was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston. On the Senate floor, Pinckney recalled the passage that described how Jesus had appeared before his disciples, but Thomas, who wasn’t there, refused to believe that he had been resurrected on Easter.

“He said, ‘I won’t believe until I see the nails. I won’t believe until I can put my hand in your side.’ And it was only when he was able to do that, he said, ‘I believe—my Lord and my God,’” Pinckney said in his resonant basso profundo. He compared Thomas’s story to those who refused to believe what had happened to Scott until they saw the video. “What if Mr. Santiago was not there to record? I’m sure that many of us would still say, like Thomas, ‘We don’t believe,’” he concluded. 

Davis, a Republican, believes that Pinckney’s words resonated deeply with his colleagues and helped the body-camera bill cross the finish line. “It’s hard to assail for someone who’s speaking from the heart, speaking with passion and conviction… to reassure people, calm people, and also urge them to action,” said Davis. A week before his death, Governor Nikki Haley signed the bill into law, with Pinckney and other legislators by her side. On Thursday morning, in his memory, his colleagues played a video of the same speech on the Senate floor and draped a black cloth over his desk. 

“He was the conscience of the General Assembly,” says State Representative Bill Clyburn, who met Pinckney when he was 18 or 19 years old and had just become an ordained minister. Like many, Clyburn remembers Pinckney best for the oratorical skills that he deployed behind the pulpit and on the floor of the statehouse. “When he went to the mic, people would listen to him—he would never come close to saying something ugly, or calling somebody a liar,” says Clyburn. “He would put on emphasis on his words—and you knew he meant it.”

Pinckney’s political conscience was not only an integral part of his own faith, but also legacy of the church he led in Charleston. Denmark Vesey, the co-founder of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, was executed after plotting a slave revolt in 1822, and the church became a historic symbol of abolition, black resistance, and civil rights. Pinckney embraced that legacy as well. “Our church was founded on social policy. We have always been vocal about social equality since the 1700s. I come from that tradition,” he told the Post and Courier in 2001.

It’s the same tradition of social justice that animated black churches to come to the forefront of the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and beyond.  “We pastors have a two-fold role: priestly and prophetic. On the priestly side, our job is comfort the afflicted. On the prophetic side, our job is to afflict the comfortable,” Rev. Raphael Warnock told NPR in 2014. And for Pinckney, that tradition was personal as well.  “I come from a long line of preacher/politicians, men who believed in social change,” Pinckney told the Post and Courier. The story continued: 

His great-grandfather, the Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson of Marion, was a minister who sued the Democratic party to allow minorities to vote in primaries. His great-uncle on his mother's side, the Rev. Levern Stevenson, led boycotts in Jasper County. He ultimately sued Gov. John West in the West vs. Stevenson case that led to single-member districts and black representation for the first time in South Carolina.

For Pinckney, continuing that prophetic tradition meant fighting for economic justice as well. His Senate district included Jasper County, a largely rural area between Savannah and Hilton Head that struggled economically compared to its neighbors. “He was living in an area that was very much a well of poverty,” says Clyburn. “He was always talking about jobs.” To the dismay of many of his colleagues, he teamed up with Governor Haley on an initiative to dredge the Savannah River to try to spur job creation, despite concerns that it would hurt Charleston’s port business while helping Georgia’s. He pushed for business tax credits to bring more retail development to his district. 

But he also embraced unabashedly progressive economic policies in his crusade. In 2006, he voted against a proposed constitutional amendment to cap property taxes, calling it “Robin Hood in reverse”—a policy that would help the rich while hurting the poor. In January 2012, he made the case against Mitt Romney for president in a press call. “Do we want a president who will focus on tax policies for the 1 percent, the 1 percent richest in our country that has benefited from our great capitalist system, or do we want to make sure that hard work does pay?” he said. “We want to make sure that we create tax policies and economic policies that benefit all of us.” Later in 2012, he was honored by the South Carolina State Housing Finance and Development Authority for his work to fight abusive foreclosure practices and to pass a statute making it harder for those owning “heirs’ properties” to lose their homes through forced sale—a problem faced by a disproportionate number of rural African-American families.

Pinckney saw it all as part of the same ministry—one that embraced love and “righteous indignation in the face of injustices,” he said, speaking before a group in his church. “That is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may even have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that.”