Beaufort News

Updated: Ordained at 18, Pinckney lent his 'booming' voice to the voiceless for decades

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat from Jasper County, was among nine people shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Pinckney, from Ridgeland, was pastor at the 150-year-old congregation and was leading a prayer meeting.
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat from Jasper County, was among nine people shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Pinckney, from Ridgeland, was pastor at the 150-year-old congregation and was leading a prayer meeting. Submitted photo

Ordained at 18 and elected at 23, the late pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney spent a lifetime lending his booming voice to the voiceless, friends and colleagues say.

In both professions, the Beaufort native and Lowcountry legislator kept the people he served in focus at all times.

Whether it was preaching from the pulpit on Easter Sunday or supporting police body camera legislation on the floor S.C. Senate, Pinckney's voice carried a weight that was heard and respected by all, they said.

"He was inspiring," said Emory Campbell, a renowned Gullah leader whose children grew up with Pinckney. "He had a voice that jarred the ears. He had a deep voice that would definitely awaken the congregation."

But that voice -- and the voices of eight others in his congregation -- were silenced Wednesday night.

Now the oft-neglected communities he represented in Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties must find a way to cope with losing one of their biggest advocates and strongest leaders, said former Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Democrat and friend of Pinckney who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor last year.

"He advocated for those who didn't have a voice," said Sellers who represented a portion of poor, rural Colleton County along with Pinckney. "We represented people who didn't have much. His voice was so deep because he was speaking for so many people."

A YOUNG LEADER

Raised in Jasper County, Pinckney hailed from a long family line of religious leaders.

He felt called to preach at only 13 and he received his first appointment as pastor at 18, according to his biography on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church website,. He served as pastor from 2010 until his death.

Over 30 years as a pastor, Pinckney served at Youngs Chapel AME Church in Irmo; Jericho and Porter's Chapel AME Churches in Beaufort; Mt. Horr AME Church in Yonges Island; and Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton, according to his church biography.

In the mid-1990s, though, he felt a second calling -- to public service and politics.

In 1996, he was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, making him the youngest African American elected to South Carolina public office at the time.

In 2000, he successfully made the jump to the S.C. Senate. He was 27.

Between it all, Pinckney earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of South Carolina; a Master's of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary; and was named to Ebony magazine's 1999 list of 30 African American leaders of the future. He also married his wife, Jennifer. They have two young daughters, Eliana and Malana.

Juggling both professions seemed natural to the energetic young man, though, his colleagues and friends say.

"He was such a dynamic guy," said Jasper County Councilman Martin Sauls IV, who knew Pinckney as a pastor before he was elected. "He didn't need very much help because he was a natural-born politician. He enjoyed it and had sort of a magnetic personality."

Coupled with his commanding presence and empathy, that personality and big smile made him an effective leader despite his age, friends said.

"He's a very calm, intelligent, humble person, and he was an advocate for peace," said Lee Smalls, who served as a steward under Pinckney when he preached at Campbell Chapel in Bluffton. "Even though he's younger than me, I looked up to him as a mentor. He's really going to be missed here in Bluffton and in Ridgeland."

'ALWAYS TOWARD JUSTICE'

Pinckney's dual role in the communities he preached to and represented in Columbia fostered a particular focus on the less fortunate, said S.C. Rep. Kenneth Hodges, a Green Pond Democrat and pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church.

"I see everything I do as an extension of the ministry. It's all about service," Pinckney told the Savannah Morning News in 1999, when he served in the S.C. House. "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."

That attitude was reflected in the way Pinckney voted, the legislation he introduced and the outreach events he held in his communities, Hodges said. It's part of what inspired Hodges to run for his seat in 2005.

"Many of the issues he worked on were some of the same things I was very concerned about," Hodges said. "He had his heart in his work. He saw the morality within it and he had compassion for people."

Hodges and Pinckney served together on the Colleton County Legislative Delegation, where they tried to concentrate on those less fortunate and on educating children.

Earlier this year, the two hosted a forum in Sheldon about "food deserts" -- low-income communities that don't have easy access to grocery stores with fresh food and produce, Hodges said.

Pinckney also held health and wellness fairs across his district to encourage health screenings, taught children about state government through his "Senator for a Day" program and spearheaded legislation designed to improve the long-troubled Jasper County public schools system.

"He has always advocated equal rights and service to the public," Campbell said. "He was in favor of issues that would make life better for everybody. He had a good heart and compassion for the poor."

The senator also passionately argued this spring in favor of a new law requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras following the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston.

He also worked across the aisle with Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to engineer plans for the Jasper port and legislation to expunge nonviolent offenses from juveniles' records, Davis said.

"He and I worked together constantly, especially in terms of trying to bring that Jasper port to reality," Davis said. "We have differences in opinion in regard to a lot of other matters, but I always enjoyed working with him. His eyes were always toward justice."

'OUR GENTLE GIANT'

When S.C. Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, was a freshman in the State House, she received a phone call out of the blue from Pinckney, by then veteran legislator.

"I'll never forget him calling me once and saying, 'I haven't heard from you on this,' " Erickson said Thursday morning, recalling her shock that the senior senator would insist on hearing her perspective.

"He'd go so far as to walk over to the (S.C.) House and come to my desk and say, 'Shannon, I want you to know about this,' and share things with me," Erickson said. "It's a lot about how the Beaufort delegation works as a whole. We've been pretty tight as a group, and I think a lot of that has to do with our gentle giant, and Clem's very calm, but astute way of dealing with people; of being that statesman and that elder."

Nearly all who have spoken about Pinckney in the hours following his death have repeated those characteristics: Calm, kind, attentive and caring.

"I consider him not only to be a colleague in the ministry and the General Assembly, but I consider him to be a friend," Hodges said. "He was respected by all, he served the church well, he served the state well, and, actually, he gave his life serving people."

Several churches in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island announced plans to hold prayer services for Pinckney and the other victims on Friday. The late senator's family plans to hold its own vigil next week, but details have not been announced.

"Beyond politics, beyond party affiliation, beyond what your view might be, he was a decent person who truly loved people and saw the best in people," Davis said. "That's who he really was. He brought that to the debate first, before anything else."

"Some politicians are able to fake or pretend or feign that they love people. He genuinely did, no matter the crowd he was in -- young or old, black or white, Republican or Democrat.

"That's a rare politician -- a rare individual -- and that's what we'll miss most."

The Island Packet editor Gina Smith and reporters Rebecca Lurye and Carolyn Rennix contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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