“He was a leader. He was a natural leader. He was always at the forefront of doing what he had to do, and he did it for people who didn’t have a voice…That infectious smile, that baritone voice, everything he did. He’d walk into a room where there was a discord or discontent and we walked in and everything was soothed over because of the person he was.”Pastor Gregory Kinsey, St. John AME Church 1
“I see my public life as a extension of my ministry. I believe in a progressive, holistic ministry where you are mentally, politically and socio-economically involved. Faith is not just getting you to heaven.”Rev. Clementa Pinckney 2
Pastor, community activist, state senator, and beloved caretaker of his community, the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney was born in 1973 in Beaufort in Jasper County, South Carolina 2 to the son of an auto mechanic and an early childhood development educator. His mother, an avid baseball fan, named him after the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Roberto Clemente.3 In his short years on this earth, he left a legacy of social change and compassion as both a Pastor and as a legislator serving the good people and parishioners of Jasper County and Mother Emanuel AME Church.
Early Life and Education
“His mind-set was already that he was going to be professional and profound.”Roslyn Fulton—Warren 4
Preaching, education, and social justice seemed deeply ingrained in his blood. On his mother’s side were many generations of AME pastors who brought about lawsuits to end segregated primaries and desegregate school buses. 5 By 13 he had obtained a license to preach, 4 relying on his aunt to drive him through a tour of churches for pastors on vacation until he was able to drive himself. All the while he was running his mother to the library twice a week for books.
By high school the seriousness was extremely apparent, the intense South Carolina heat didn’t keep him from ties and suits all through high school. Elected student president twice, he was already speaking against drugs and guns. 3
By the time he graduated from Allen University, he had been noted by Ebony magazine as one of the “Top College Students in America,” taken part in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program to study international affairs and public policy, 6been president of his freshman class, senior class, and student body, 7 earned his ordination in the AME church, was working as a statehouse page, and achieved a degree in business administration. 2 Afterward, he was awarded a graduate fellowship to the University of South Carolina where he earned a master’s degree in public administration, and then went to to earn a Master of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. 7 Even up to the time of his death he was still pursuing education, working on his doctorate in ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary. 3 It was awarded to him posthumously. 7
“I always felt God had called me to serve within the church because of what the church stands for. This has always been home.”Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Charleston Post and Courtier, 2010 8
“Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation…We are part of the life and community in which our congregation resides.”Rev. Clementa Pinckney
By 18 Rev. Pinckney had been fully ordained, pastoring a small church while in college. Before he turned forty he had become an elder in the AME church, supervising 17 churches, 4 and served thousands of parishioners. 7 By 37, he was appointed the pastor of Emanuel AME, the oldest AME church in the south with a long history of anti-slavery resistance. 6
A Civic Servant of Faith
Following in the footsteps of other Mother Emanuel AME ministers like US Representative and minister Rev. Richard Cain, Rev. Pinckney picked up the torch of faith leaders serving in civic leadership to bring justice to their communities.
At the time that his beloved community was robbed of their advocate, Pinckney was a rising star of the Democratic party in a solidly Republican state. 9 He had been serving since 1997, when at 23 he was the youngest African American elected to the General Assembly. 3 Four years later, Jasper County sent him to the State Senate as the youngest African American elected to that body. 6,7
“Obviously on some level he was ambitious for having run for the legislature at 23 years old and run for the state Senate, but in many ways [he was] not ambitious in the way that we associate with politicians today, The key is that it was a life of service. You always had a sense of genuineness in talking with him, and you always had a sense that he cared about doing the right thing…It’s an enormous loss.”Mark Thompkins, Professor Emeritus, University of South Carolina 10
“When we often times were at an impasse or a sticking point that prevented us from moving forward on legislation, we would turn to him for wise counsel and even spiritual guidance, and he would respond in a very distinct, deep, authoritative voice and give us guidance.”Sen. Marlon Kimpson
Known for leading by example and being a strong voice for education, healthcare, and gun reform, 7 and for securing a much needed stimulus package for the havoc wrecked on South Carolina after the economic crash of 2008, 6 Rev. Pinckney was deeply admired for his particular fire and passion which led the state to pass body camera legislation for police after the shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot in the back by police. He led vigils and spoke out on the State Senate floor. 5 “It is chilling to me” wrote Rev. Al Sharpton after the death of Rev. Pinckney, “that just over two months ago while I was in North Charleston over the police shooting of Walter Scott, I’m reminded that Rev. Pinckney was among the clergy who stood with me at that occasion and now he has fallen victim to senseless violence.” 2 The Honorable Rev. Pinckney’s deeply chilling speech on the floor of the State Senate, calling upon the Gospel to tell the story of belief and justice, resonates through the past four years and sounds prophetic today.
“He has sponsored progressive legislation, played a key role in us just getting body camera legislation passed…He was a very caring and competent pastor and he was a very brave man… And brave men sometimes die very difficult deaths.”Rev. Joseph Darby, Beaufort AME Church 2
Loss and Legacy
The morning of June 17, 2015, the Reverend left Ridgeland. The town was where he and his wife Jennifer, whom he had married in 1999, were raising their family of two young daughters and also where he had spent most of his life. He left for a meeting of the State Senate finance committee two hours away to address scholarship funding. Then it was off to a Charleston speech by Hillary Clinton, followed by Mother Emanuel for their Bible Study they held every Wednesday night. During the prior church business meeting, he had solidified the ordination of Myra Thompson. That Bible Study was to be her first official duty as a minister. 4,5 He was the first to offer the seat next to him to the stranger who came that night and Rev. Pinckney was also the first that same person turned to shoot.
The South Carolina State Senate, many of whom believed Rev. Pinckney to be the “Conscience of the Senate,” draped his desk in black the morning after his murder. A public viewing of the casket where he lay in state was held in the State Capitol. President Barack Obama delivered his eulogy. In May of 2016, with his wife and daughters present, his portrait was hung in the Senate Chamber.
President Obama’s Eulogy
Sen. Sheheen’s Senate Tribute
One month after the shooting, the General Assembly of South Carolina voted to take down the Confederate flag from State House Grounds. 3 Three years later, the Reverend Pinckney Scholars program, initially funded by anonymous donations after June 2015, was creating a college readiness program for 30 applicants, paid summer internships for high school students, study abroad and summer courses, and a $10,000 scholarship per year for four years for black high school seniors from the counties Pinckney represented. 11
Mother Emanuel’s Legacy
Not long before his death, Reverend Pinckney gave a riveting, painful, hopeful, and rich lesson in the history of the congregation that he served, and its importance to people of color throughout the last two centuries.
Now, like so many Emanuel AME pastors before him, his life and legacy is tied to that of the church he served, it’s dedication to freedom and resistance, compassion and grace, struggle and resurrection; it seems appropriate to incorporate the legacy of the church here.
“”The problem we face as legislators, in hearing from all these different interests, is figuring out what interest we do not hear from. We need to represent those who are not organized — poor people, mothers with children, who may not be the big guns. Our job is to sift through that.”
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
“In the community, in the African-American community, one person ought to say something, and that is the minister. The minister is paid by the people. He doesn’t work for a big company. He doesn’t represent a particular special interest.”
Rev. Clemente Pinckney
“In life, we are all faced with the opportunity to serve. It is at times a hard choice to make but those hard choices yield great rewards. Those rewards are mostly for others and not for ourselves. That’s what service is all about.”
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
“Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it out or not? Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And 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 have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”
Rev. Clemente Pinckney
- 1.Guidera T. Hometown Hero: Reverend Clementa Pinckney. https://www.wtoc.com. July 2018.
- 2.Georgantopoulos MA. Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s Call To Preach Came Early. BuzzFeed News. June 2015.
- 3.Clementa C. Pinckney. Wikipedia. July 2019.
- 4.Von Drehle D, Newton-Small J, Rhodan M. What It Takes to Forgive a Killer. TIME.com. November 2015.
- 5.Frankel T. Clementa C. Pinckney: Remembering the Charleston church shooting victims. Washington Post. June 2015.
- 6.Ruffin II HG. Clementa C. Pinckney (1973-2015). BlackPast. June 2015.
- 7.South Carolina Department of Education T. Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney – South Carolina African American History Calendar.
- 8.The victims of Charleston shooting. BBC News. June 2015.
- 9.The pastor who lifted human spirits. BBC News. June 2015.
- 10.Truesdell J. Charleston Church Shooting Victims Ranged from Pastors to Politician to Girls’ Track Team Coach. PEOPLE.com. June 2015.
- 11.Bowers P. With $3M boost to scholarship fund, Clementa Pinckney’s legacy keeps growing. Post and Courier. June 2018.