World / Crime & Legal

Charleston's storied 'Mother Emanuel' grieves loss of gifted pastor-politician

Reuters

Two months before the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was gunned down during a Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, he stood before state lawmakers seamlessly blending his faith and politics in urging them to pass a law to protect his community.

In this case, he was citing scripture in asking fellow South Carolina lawmakers to support equipping police with body cameras following the fatal police shooting of Walter Scott, a black man killed as he fled a traffic stop.

Pinckney’s adeptness in persuading lawmakers to support the bill would be among the final political successes for the gifted pastor-politician, who was gunned down at age 41 along with eight others at his church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, on Wednesday night.

Nicknamed “Mother Emanuel,” the Gothic Revival-style brick house of worship is the oldest A.M.E. church in the Southeastern United States, with a storied history dating back to slavery. It has survived both a fire and an earthquake.

Founded in 1818, it was the first branch of the Philadelphia-based A.M.E. church in the South, and played a leading role in politics from the start. Originally wood-built, it was burned down in the 1820s after an attempted slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders. It was later rebuilt and a grander brick version erected in 1891.

“If we had such a thing as a cathedral church in South Carolina, it would be our cathedral church,” said Joseph Darby, a friend of Pinckney and presiding elder at the Beaufort District of the A.M.E. Church in Charleston where a prayer vigil was held on Thursday.

Like other African-American churches across the country, Emanuel served as a meeting place and a shelter for the city’s large and longstanding black community, and was steeped in a history of battling racism and fighting for civil rights.

A fourth-generation pastor with political activism also in his family, Pinckney was an ideal fit for Emanuel.

A talented orator with a booming voice, Pinckney chose a religious path early. He began preaching at 13, and at 23 became the youngest African-American in South Carolina history to be elected to the state legislature.

He was widely admired for blending his deep Christian faith and his progressive political work, even if it involved commuting daily between the state legislature two hours away in Columbia, to his church in downtown Charleston.

“He was a giant,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat. “He was the moral conscience of the Senate,” he added. “We turned to him oft times during a legislative impasse and he would offer us his guidance, but more importantly give us his spiritual and biblical perspective.”

Pinckney graduated in 1995 from Allen University, a historically black Christian college in Columbia, and obtained a master of public administration from the University of South Carolina and a master of divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, according to the church’s website.

Married with two children, Pinckney served as a Democrat in the state legislature for 19 years, the last 15 in the Senate.

As a member of the Senate finance committee, he “was known for his insight on the budgetry process as well as his strong belief in Medicaid expansion,” Kimpson said.

On Wednesday, Pinckney spent the morning in the state capitol attending a Senate Democratic Party caucus. Kimpson said he had a lengthy conversation with Pinckney afterward to discuss a health care meeting with constituents, before his colleague left to drive back to Charleston for an important church meeting.

Pinckney met later with church leaders to organize a district A.M.E. conference, and then stayed on for Bible study, where the gunman struck.

The unprecedented shooting attack was a blow to the African-American community for whom Emanuel holds a special place in history.

“There is no more solid foundation for the black experience in this country than the black church,” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said as he attended a Charleston vigil for the victims, adding that the attack would not change that.

“This church is built upon a rock,” said the Democrat from South Carolina to applause and fervent “amens.”

It was the most shocking bloodshed at a black church in the south since four black girls were killed in a civil rights-era church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that shocked the nation in 1963.

More recently, racial tensions have risen again following police killings of unarmed black men in New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri. And in South Carolina, a white police officer was charged with murder after he shot Walter Scott in April in neighboring North Charleston.

Darby, Pinckney’s friend and colleague, blamed the latest shooting on the current political environment and divisive election campaign rhetoric being used to turn out voters.

“I hope this is a cautionary tale,” he said. “This is the climate of America in the past six, seven years, the worsening climate of America.”