Sen. Pinckney mourned: ‘He will always be a hero’
Subheadline: Community recalls senator’s rise from Ridgeland to the Statehouse
They saw the small boy wear a shirt and tie to school each day, and they were astonished as he quickly grew taller and taller each year.
And then they heard the young man deliver a speech with a deep baritone voice that had them gasping and giving each other awed looks and they knew – classmates, teachers and friends – that Clementa Pinckney, the kid from Ridgeland they called Clem, was destined to outgrow the small town he called home and become a man of great universal influence.
Pinckney, who was raised just off of Bees Creek Road, grew from a 13-year-old preacher to two-time student body president at Jasper County High School to being elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1996 at 23.
Since 2000, he represented Jasper County in the state Senate.
“You always knew,” said Roslyn Warren, who graduated from Jasper County High with Pinckney in 1991. “I felt he was going to be one of the ones to go on and do something profound.”
Sen. Pinckney was among nine people shot and killed last Wednesday at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where Pinckney, 41, served as pastor. The Democratic senator represented District 45.
Pinckney’s death shook the county, inspired several vigils and brought the community together to remember a man who many figured was ready to politically ascend.
“Even though he was in the Senate seat we were expecting more,” said Ed Darien, Pinckney’s classmate. “One day he’d be governor or the President. He had that character, that drive. We just knew it – the Senate seat was just the beginning.”
Pinckney, who had a wife, Jennifer, and two children, 11-year-old Eliana and 6-year-old Malana, was respected by his peers at a young age.
He and Warren were named king and queen in second grade and as a teenager Pinckney’s classmates noticed he never came to school without wearing a tie. He was preparing himself for the future, they figured, a future of integrity and professionalism.
They voted him most likely to succeed.
“He was mission-oriented,” said Katherine Manigo, Pinckney’s chorus teacher from eighth grade to senior year.
Under Manigo’s guidance Pinckney’s voice bloomed. It always engulfed a room and forced friends to stop and listen, but the choir brought something else out from deep inside Clem.
He led renditions of Bach’s “Honor and Glory,” and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” and his booming pipes led to a slight adjustment.
“Well, Clem was deeper than anybody else, so we made up a section just for him,” Darien said.
Soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Clem.
“He had such a rich voice,” Manigo said.
‘We were in awe’
There was a high school assembly and Pinckney was going to recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
His classmates had seen and heard the recordings of King Jr.’s speech and figured this would be another of many efforts to rekindle the passion of that August day in 1963.
But then Pinckney stood tall and began his speech. This was different, they thought.
Pinckney’s authoritative voice carried with passion and the students and teachers were mesmerized and they realized Pinckney was not just reading the words but feeling them, bringing them back to life and willing them into the audience’s hearts so they’d think about the speech as they drove home and when they woke up the next morning.
“He recited that speech so well that our hearts burned,” Darien said. “We were in awe. Right then and there we knew.”
Pinckney, who graduated from Allen University and served as pastor at Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton from 2009-10 before going to Emanuel, helped inspire his friends.
Sheree Darien, Ed’s wife and JCHS Class of 1992, had a comfortable job in Ridgeland at Regions Bank, but she wanted to do more to help the people. She needed a little encouragement, something to propel her to take on other challenges.
She found inspiration in Sen. Pinckney.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” said Sheree Darien, who now runs Darien Coaching and Consulting, is a minister at Real Life Christian Fellowship in Port Wentworth, Ga., and credits Pinckney with helping her be part of the Technical College of the Lowcountry Commission. “He is the epitome of all I hope to be the day I leave this place.”
Sheriff Greg Jenkins said Pinckney called him after he was elected as sheriff to talk about being a leader and to understand that Jenkins serves 25,000 people and sometimes they’ll be heavy burdens. Jenkins never forgot their conversation and the senator’s willingness to offer advice. He was pained by Pinckney’s death.
“This is a father. This is a husband. This is a pastor. This is a friend. He wore all those hats,” Jenkins said. “It’s a human life, that’s what hurts the most. His life was taken.”
Warren, who grew up attending St. John AME Church with Pinckney, said the senator had a special aura around him.
“To me he’s considered one of the heroes of our county,” Warren said. “He’s one who stood out. He will always be a hero.”
Remember his name
County Coroner Martin Sauls had been in many funeral services with Sen. Pinckney and watched the poised pastor address mourning family and friends. Last Thursday night, as more than 100 people gathered for a vigil at Turpin Park in Ridgeland, Sauls recalled Pinckney’s words as a community struggled to accept his death but vowed to always honor his name.
“He’d say, ‘When we leave this life, we go to a better life. There’s a part of an individual that survives the grave and will never die,’” Sauls said. “Those are the memories we have of Clementa Pinckney. We are going to hang on to those memories for a long time. Jasper County was a better place because he was here.”