On June 17, 2015 the state and the nation were shocked by the horrific shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Nine people attending bible study at the church, including the church’s pastor State Sen. Clemente Pinckney of Jasper County were killed. The death of Pinckney, a popular and respected member of the Senate, rocked the Statehouse, and set-off a chain of events that culminated three weeks later with the removal of the confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
The state legislature had formally adjourned for the year but was back in special session on June 17th attempting to reach agreement on a budget package. That afternoon, Pinckney quietly left a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee after telling the Senator sitting beside him that he had to go to Charleston. “He was getting up and he said in his deep voice well I’m out of here,” according to Spartanburg Sen. Glenn Reese. “I said where are you going Clemente? And he said I’m heading to Charleston. I said really, you have to go down there tonight? And he said yep, I’ve got a meeting at the church,” Reese added.
It was not unusual for Pinckney to leave Senate sessions to attend to church business.
As news of the shootings spread that night, Gov. Nikki Haley was aware that it was Pinckney’s church called and left him a message on his cell phone.
“I said Sen. Pinckney this is Nikki, I have heard what has happened. I want you to know that we have additional assistance heading your way. My Chief of SLED is on his way. Please call me and let me know what I need to be doing, what the families need to be doing, and where we need to be going from there,” according to the Governor.
Haley also said she assumed that Pinckney was in Columbia, and never thought that her message would go un-heard.
The following morning a stunned and somber Senate convened. The state budget was no longer on their minds, they had lost a special colleague. A man that many Democratic and Republican members considered the conscience of the body was suddenly gone. His desk on the Senate floor was draped in black. Some Senators rose to speak. Darlington Sen. Gerald Malloy, Pinckney’s desk mate and close friend, spoke of a religious hymn that sings about a “sweet spirit in this place.” Malloy continued, “In this Senate Chamber there was also a sweet spirit, and it was Sen. Clemente Pinckney. “Senator Pinckney will forever live in this Senate,” Malloy added.
Clemente Pinckney came of age at the Statehouse. He was a House Page while attending college. He was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 23, and to the Senate by age 28. He served there for 15 years. Pinckney made his final journey to the capitol on June 24th when his body lay in state. Thousands stood in line to pay their respects. His funeral was held two days later in Charleston with his eulogy delivered by President Obama.
“He was full of empathy,” Obama said. “He was able to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes,” the President also said. “No wonder one of his Senate colleagues remembered Sen. Pinckney as the most gentle of the 46 of us. The best of the 46 of us,” Obama added.
Pinckney was buried late on the afternoon of June 26th at a small AME Church cemetery in rural Marion County.
On July 9, 2015 the General Assembly voted to remove the confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. The action was clearly influenced by the deaths of Pinckney and the other eight victims at Emanuel Church.
On May 25th this year a portrait of Pinckney was hung in the Senate Chamber. It was un-veiled by his two young daughters and his wife Jennifer. It hangs alongside those of some of South Carolina’s greatest statesmen and Senate leaders.