By Todd C. Frankel
Clementa C. Pinckney was busy Wednesday, not unusual for a man who was both a respected reverend and state senator in his native South Carolina.
He began the day at home in Ridgeland, with his wife and two daughters, before driving to the statehouse in Columbia two hours away. He had a 9:30 a.m. Finance Committee meeting. They talked about scholarship funding. He left early to make it to North Charleston for a speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton at a community college. Then it was off to his congregation in downtown, the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the regular Wednesday night Bible study.
Pinckney, 41, was leading the Bible group when a gunman opened fire inside the church. Nine people were killed, police said, and Pinckney was among the dead.
“This is just devastating, to lose such a respected man” said state Sen. Larry Grooms of Charleston, who served with Pinckney for 15 years. “The whole thing is unbelievable.”
Pinckney had long known the power of the pulpit.
He had taken to preaching at age 13, following deeply rooted family tradition. His great-grandfather and uncle had been well-known AME pastors who fought to end whites-only political primaries and desegregate school busing.
Pinckney soon discovered that the familial gift had not passed him by.
“If you put him in a room of 20 people, he’d be leading it by the time you came out the door,” said Albert Kleckley, a county probate judge who knew Pinckney for years.
Pinckney had his own church and a hand in the statehouse, following the example set by many black religious leaders in the South who found common cause with their beliefs in politics.
He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1996, at age 23. In 2000, he made it to the state Senate, becoming, at age 27, the youngest African American in South Carolina to do so.
Recently, said those who knew him , Pinckney appeared to have found a cause , the kind of galvanizing injustice that the pastors in his family had seized upon in the past. That came in April, when Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a police officer in nearby North Charleston.
Pinckney spoke out against what he called a murder. He led vigils. He pushed for a state law to require police to wear body cameras.
In early June, he organized a community prayer service with other church leaders in the area, recalled the Rev. Robert E. Kennedy. The event was held at Kennedy’s church, St. Peter’s AME in North Charleston.
“He brought us together, the Methodist bishops, to address the problem of gun violence in light of Walter Scott,” Kennedy said. “It was all him.”
Kennedy said he was struggling to understand what happened Wednesday. It just didn’t make sense. The incident made him doubt one of a church’s main principles: the open-door policy. The door had been unlocked for Bible study at Emanuel AME; anybody could come in, just as they could have at St. Peter’s AME, he said.
“Now, we’ve got to go back and look at what we’re doing,” Kennedy said. “I know I will.”
The mourning poured forth Thursday for the loss of a man who was widely respected, known for his big, imposing presence yet soft baritone voice. His desk in the statehouse was draped in black cloth, a single rose on top.
“He was a talented and well respected Senator who represented the people of his church, his community and his state with great character and a servant’s heart,” State Sen. Harvey Peeler, Republican and majority leader, said in a statement.
Vice President Biden decried in a statement “the senseless actions of a coward” and recalled that he last saw Pinckney at a 2014 prayer breakfast in Columbia.
“He was a good man, a man of faith, a man of service who carried forward Mother Emanuel’s legacy as a sacred place promoting freedom, equality, and justice for all,” Biden said.
Pinckney was married and had two children, Eliana and Malana, according to his church biography.
In May, Pinckney stood up on the state Senate floor and gave a speech about the Scott shooting.
Grooms recalled it as his colleague and friend’s finest moment in the statehouse.
“Today, the nation looks at South Carolina and is looking at us to see if we will rise to be the body and to be the state that we really say that we are,” Pinckney (D-Jasper) said back then.
He went on to note the pain caused by that incident — words that resonate anew after the tragedy at his church.
“It has really created a real heartache and a yearning for justice — and not just in the African American community, but for all people,” he said.
Jacob Bogage contributed to this report.