RIDGELAND — “Can any good thing come from there?” It’s a familiar question, first posed by Jesus’ third disciple in the Gospel of St. John when told the Messiah was from Nazareth in rural Galilee. It was a poor, out-of-the way place whose people were victimized by prejudice, stereotyped as ignorant and troublesome, and not to be trusted.
Folks here in Jasper County, among the poorest places in South Carolina, easily relate to such prejudice. Even they sometimes ask themselves: “Can any good thing come from here?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
Clementa (pronounced Clementay) C. Pinckney was 13 when called to the ministry at his home church, St. John’s AME near Ridgeland on Tillman Road. He was a natural born leader with a captivating baritone voice who came from a long line of country preachers.
“‘The Voice’ is what we called him,” said a young lady who stood during a prayer service Tuesday night in the packed St. John’s sanctuary. “I’m here to speak for Clementa’s high school Class of 1991. He was our leader, our hope for Jasper County — which is known for certain limitations — and he proved to us that, no matter what, we can achieve anything if we put the Lord first.”
The Rev. Pinckney preached his first sermon when he was 13 years old and earned a business degree from Allen University in Columbia. His faith called him again to serve in the S.C. House at age 23, then to the Senate at age 27. He graduated from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2008 with a master’s in divinity.
Two years later, he was asked to lead historic Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, and it was there on the evening of June 17 during a Bible study in the basement of “Mother Emanuel” that his voice was silenced.
A strange, young visitor showed up that night and asked to join the study, and he was welcomed. An hour later, he stood, held out a .45 caliber handgun, said he wanted start a race war and pulled the trigger multiple times. He killed the Rev. Pinckney first, then eight others.
Those shots struck home in rural Jasper County.
Every seat was filled Tuesday night in the sanctuary of St. John’s AME Church where Clementa Pinckney began his ministry. Eight local pastors led the prayers. They asked God to comfort the bereaved and heal the community, to seal the nation’s racial wounds with love and understanding, and to forgive the killer.
“The street says ‘No’ when we speak of forgiveness, but you say ‘Yes!’” Baptist pastor Gregory Jenkins said. “God says we must forgive, so we ask Him to allow us to begin the process, for that is part of it. So let us continue through this — allow us to shut down the violence, and to forgive — for the individual who did this, he too is a child of God.”
Clementa Pinckney’s spirit was alive in his home church Tuesday night. It was impossible not to feel it. When the choir sang Hymn #196, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” everyone in the room — including three armed Jasper County sheriff’s deputies — stood and swayed in unison left and right, clapped in a distinctive 3-2 time and sang:
“On Christ is solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand ...”
It was impossible not to feel it.
St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Gregory Kinsey, rose and spoke in conclusion: “He always spoke honestly in his beautiful, deep voice about peace through understanding.”
Indeed, as a senator in good standing with all of his Statehouse colleagues, the Honorable Rev. Pinckney was the voice of South Carolina’s moral conscience. In April in Charleston this is what he said:
“Regardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect compassion and tenderness.”
And there lies a bitter irony.
The Confederate battle flag — a blue St. Andrew’s Cross with 13 white stars on a field of red trimmed in white — did not kill Rev. Pinckney and the others. A skinny white racist with a fascination for corrupted symbols did.
The flag that flies at a monument on the Statehouse grounds instills in certain people a sick sense of pride and racial standing, a false feeling of superiority polluted by fear and ignorance manifested as hate. Thoughtful Southerners understand this irony.
When Confederate generals ordered the battle flag furled and preserved in respectful ways, it was for good reason. The fight was over. It was time for the soldiers to go home. But talk of a guerrilla war, and the terrorism that accompanies it, was rampant throughout the South, especially during the madness of Reconstruction. And the generals’ warnings were largely ignored.
Then crass commercialism entered in, first in the 1950s in Myrtle Beach tourist shops that sold beach towels with Rebel flags and the words “Forget Hell!” Next came toy guns and gray cavalry hats and soldier’s caps declaring “The South Shall Rise Again!” And there were bumper stickers galore — many with messages crude and demeaning. Enormous billboards screaming “Johnny Reb’s Fireworks Sold Here” sprouted like weeds south along U.S. Highway 17, through Jasper County and all the way to Florida.
Daughters of the Confederacy chapters took offense. They asked manufacturers to cease the desecration of the soldiers’ flag. When the Fort Sumter Hotel opened at White Point Garden in Charleston, the Daughters took to the streets in protest because the proprietor of the towering tourist house ran up a Confederate battle flag as part of a cheap advertising campaign.
“It’s in honor of the brave Rebels who defended the harbor,” the proprietor claimed, adding that tour boats take people from the hotel out to Fort Sumter, which brings lots of tourist dollars into Charleston. (Does this sound familiar?)
But the Daughters were adamant. Remove that flag, they demanded. You are demeaning it. So the flag came down.
Sadly through the years, ignorance prevailed until June 17, 2015, when the odd, young stranger purchased a gun and headed to Charleston.
John M. Burbage is a journalist, editor, and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and owns a farm Hampton County.