COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When Clementa Pinckney stepped to the well of the South Carolina Senate chamber in April, fellow legislators expected him to lobby for funding of police body cameras. But the charcoal-suited Pinckney, speaking in the rich, deliberate tone that was his calling card, set aside almost any mention of politics or policing, in favor of a biblical story.
He told fellow lawmakers that, like the Apostle Thomas who at first questioned Jesus’ resurrection, they might have harbored doubts about whether a white North Charleston police officer had, in fact, shot a black man in the back. But after watching a video of the shooting, “we all were like Thomas and said ‘I believe.'”
On Thursday, legislators replayed a video of that speech at a Statehouse tribute to Pinckney, 41, who was killed with eight others by a gunman inside the historic black Charleston church he led as pastor. It offered testament to a career — quite long for a man so young — and a persona defined by interwoven faith and activism, stretching from boyhood in Ridgeland, a mostly African-American town in the state’s Lowcountry, to the pulpit of one of its most notable congregations.
“In Ridgeland, there was nothing else to do but go to church,” said the retired Rev. Thomas E. McClary, who was Pinckney’s sixth grade teacher and a mentor to a man who began preaching at 13.
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“Clem was a well-spoken young man. He never raised his voice. He emulated, I guess we would say, the pastors that he came in contact with,” McClary said. “He said he had a calling to help people.”
Pinckney, who in his teens was elected president of the statewide African Methodist Episcopal youth group, was ordained at 18.
At Allen University, a predominantly black school named for the founder of the AME church, he was president of the student body. He also served as a page to state Rep. Juanita White. One year after he graduated, Pinckney became, at 23, the youngest African-American then elected to the South Carolina Legislature, replacing the retiring White. In 2000, he was elected to the state Senate.
Pinckney endeared himself as a freshman senator, surrounded by men decades older, said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a minister of Columbia’s largest black church.
“Part of the tradition is that when you’re a freshman, even if you are smarter than everybody else, they don’t want you acting like it. Clem got that. He knew that as a freshman he didn’t need to be at the podium every week or speak out on every issue.”
But even as Pinckney gained stature in the Statehouse, he remained rooted in the church. Pinckney came from a long line of AME preachers on his mother’s side, state Sen. Kent Williams said. Pinckney’s mother grew up in Marion across a farm of tobacco, corn and soybeans from where Williams grew up, and she and her husband, pushed their children to get an education.
Pinckney’s path to college, and later the seminary, led to ministerial posts at a succession of churches, some of them quite small.
“His sermons mesmerized and he was an excellent teacher of the word,” said Lucille Kannick, a steward at Mount Horr AME Church in Yonges Island, where Pinckney served from 2009 to 2010, before taking the job at the Charleston church.
As he moved from church to church, Pinckney continued to keep a home in Ridgeland that he shared with his wife, Jennifer, and their two daughters. But McClary said he began spending most of his time in Charleston after assuming leadership of Emanuel AME, one of the oldest black churches in the South, often referred to as “Mother Emanuel.”
Pinckney was proud of the church’s history as home to rebellion against slavery and its continued role in promoting reform.
“We don’t like to see our church as a museum but still a place of change and still a place where we can hopefully change and work on the hearts and minds and spirits of all people,” Pinckney said in a 2013 in welcome to a visiting civil rights group.
If a conflict arose between Pinckney’s dual roles, his congregation came first, Jackson said. That meant he sometimes missed sessions to conduct funerals. On Wednesday, Pinckney left Columbia after a committee meeting in order to get back to his congregation, intending to return on Thursday.
“If he wasn’t as conscientious as he was that his congregation came first,” he would not be among the victims, Jackson said.
In the legislature, he gained a reputation for speaking well, but in measured tones.
“He was a very wise man to be so young. I’ve never seen or heard him say anything out of character,” Williams said. “I never saw him lose his temper or get angry.”
“He had a core not many of us have,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who sat beside him in Senate chambers. “I think of the irony that the most gentle of the 46 of us — the best of the 46 of us in this chamber — is the one who lost his life.”
Senators walked into chambers together Thursday and gathered at the podium for a prayer. A vase of flowers sat on a black cloth draping Pinckney’s desk.
Pinckney’s temperament and leadership abilities led McClary to believe that he might one day become an AME bishop. But that prospect was washed away by the shooting, leaving those who knew Pinckney in despair.
“We take him as our little boy, even though he became … such a humble young man. You know you couldn’t help but love him,” he said. “It hurts. It hurts.”