Family Knew Slain Charleston Pastor Would Lead A Consequential Life

Jun 19, 2015
Originally published on June 20, 2015 12:47 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Among the dead at Mother Emanuel in Charleston was the senior minister, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He was also a state senator and leader in the local African-American community. NPR's John Burnett has this look at his life of service.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: What Senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney believed is that the church should exist beyond its stained glass windows and fulfill a vital mission in the life of a community. He lived out that dual philosophy by serving his religious congregation and his political constituents. Earlier this year, he spoke in the South Carolina state Senate in favor of a bill requiring law enforcement to wear body cameras. His speech was prompted by a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man named Walter Scott in the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEN/REV CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: And when we saw him fall to the ground, and when we saw the police officer come and handcuff him on the ground without even trying to resuscitate him...

BURNETT: Pinckney said that if it weren't for a bystander's video of the incident, the public would have been like doubting Thomas in the Bible.

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PINCKNEY: I'm sure that many of us would still say, like Thomas, we don't believe.

BURNETT: Pinckney was precocious, to be sure. He started preaching at 13, pastored his first church at 18 and became a state Rep. at 23. His family witnessed his talents early. They knew that Clem, as he was known, would lead a consequential life. His cousin and fellow state senator, Kent Williams, says Pinckney became known for his humility, his decency and his oratory.

SEN KENT WILLIAMS: He had this distinctive voice that everyone wished they had. I mean, it captivated you. When he spoke, everyone listened.

BURNETT: Pinckney was a prominent Democrat and recently had begun campaigning for Hillary Clinton. His colleagues say he was an ardent advocate for the poor. He pushed for legislation that helped the disabled and recipients of Medicaid. And he was effective, says state Senator Chip Campsen, a Republican who served alongside him for 15 years.

SEN CHIP CAMPSEN: All the times when you would negotiate something with Senator Pinckney, you would come away feeling like you just went through some pastoral counseling. But yet, he persuaded you.

BURNETT: Clementa Pinckney was pastor of one of the South's most storied black churches. Emanuel AME has always served as a beacon for the civil rights struggle in Charleston. Both Booker T. Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King spoke there. One of its founders was a freed slave name Denmark Vesey, who plotted a slave uprising in 1822 and hanged for it. Rev. Pinckney remembers his forebear when he spoke at his church in 2013, talking about how it takes courage to stand up for equality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PINCKNEY: Sometimes, you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes, you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.

BURNETT: Clementa Pinckney, born in Beaufort, S.C., was 41. He leaves behind a wife, Jennifer, and two daughters. He was in the process of receiving his doctor in ministry when he was killed. His dissertation was going to be about bi-vocational pastors who have careers outside of the church. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.