A harmonious bus ride, love for a hometown hero, and President Obama’s amazing grace
At 4 a.m., on a dark but clear Friday morning, Ja’Len Beacher-Orr awoke in his Ridgeland home, put on a dark suit and tightened his tie.
He was going to see the President of the United States.
Orr, 17, knew he had to dress sharp because he was also going to Charleston to pay respects to a man who offered him a public platform when Orr needed an outlet to express his grief over his cousin’s murder. The man from small-town Ridgeland who rose to become a state senator in Columbia always sported a nicely pressed shirt and tie.
Orr was going to Charleston to honor Clementa Pinckney.
As Orr dressed, Freddie and Eloise Walthour woke in Midway, Ga., and prepped to travel to Ridgeland and join about 40 others on a bus that would take them to the College of Charleston’s TD Arena for Sen. Pinckney’s funeral.
The Walthours are Pinckney’s distant cousins and wouldn’t think of missing a chance to support the family. They left themselves some extra time to make the 60-mile trip to Ridgeland.
Ladenier Mitchell of Ridgeland set her alarm for 4:30 a.m. She’s been a prominent local voice, keeping Pinckney’s legacy alive, since June 17, when Pinckney, 41, and eight others were murdered at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, where Pinckney was pastor.
There was no chance she was going to miss the bus.
Mitchell, who has organized midday vigils at Turpin Park each day since the shootings, wanted to be on the bus because it symbolized how the slayings have unified the county.
“It shows the unity of the county,” she said. “Jasper County stands up and unites in wake of tragedy.”
Three buses drove more than 100 people from Jasper County to Charleston to give the county a chance to say goodbye to Pinckney and witness President Barack Obama honor his name with a stirring eulogy.
Beacher-Orr was aboard the Charles Mitchell-driven bus that left the Mary Gordon Ellis Building in Ridgeland at 7 a.m. Soft music provided most of the noise as the bus made the 74-mile trip.
Beacher-Orr, a recent Ridgeland-Hardeeville High graduate who will attend Claflin University in Orangeburg this fall, spoke about the importance of Pinckney’s Senator For a Day speech contest. Beacher-Orr competed twice, and in 2014 his speech aimed to reduce unsolved crimes. His cousin was killed in 2011 and he said for a year he worked on that speech. Thanks to Sen. Pinckney, Beacher-Orr was able to passionately share his story and the proposed bill.
“I’m forever grateful,” Beacher-Orr said.
‘In awe of the love here’
The crowd was buzzing and Emanuel AME Church’s exuberant choir was rollicking and Patrina Smith’s hands were shaking.
Smith was with her husband Cliff, a childhood friend of Pinckney’s. As Patrina Smith walked under the tunnel and onto the arena floor shortly before 11 a.m., she sensed something different happening. This was a funeral, but she did not feel a suffocating sadness, instead there was unabashed joy.
She watched the choir sway and 5,500 people stand and clap and sing and sing and sing and suddenly a time of grief transformed into great rejoicing.
“I grieve, I cry, I show all the emotions,” said Patrina Smith, who used to work for Pinckney’s mother, Theopia Stevenson Aikens, at her day care center. “But the songs they had were inspiring to my spirit. Now it’s teaching me even if a loved one in my family passes away, I can deal with it.”
Those on the Jasper buses were seated throughout the arena and Charleston residents Anna Mills and Mary Graham, who had stood outside since 6 a.m. hoping to get inside, managed to find a spot in the middle of an aisle in the back wings. They sat with Mills’ 8-year-old granddaughter and learned about Jasper County.
Mills, who was a tutor and mentor in Charleston-area schools in the 1990s, said she had to be inside the arena because she wanted to be part of the harmony that developed immediately after the shootings.
“To be a part of such love, I am just in awe of the love here,” said Mills, who lives in Tennessee, but has a second home in Charleston. “When people thought that racism and riots would have broken out, humanity came together.”
Bridgette Frazier looked around the arena and was astonished by the diversity. Gov. Nikki Haley, Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton. Working-class men and women. And President Obama. All there to honor Sen. Pinckney, from Jasper County in the Lowcountry.
“People from all walks of life sharing in the same spirit,” said Frazier, 31, of Bluffton.
Frazier knew Pinckney when he was pastor at Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton. She said he reminded her of her father, former Bluffton mayor pro tem, Oscar Frazier, who was 49 when he died of liver cancer in 2005.
“They were able to bridge different cultures,” Frazier said. “Sen. Pinckney’s a guy everyone loved and his legacy will live on in death.”
Gaining unity through President Obama
President Obama’s words were driving Cliff Smith to tears. Smith and his wife were in the wings near the back and they listened as Obama talked about racial equality, the need to not ignore communities with children suffering in poverty, and Sen. Pinckney’s dignity.
“What a good man,” President Obama said. “Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.”
Cliff Smith was overcome with emotion.
“This one came as close to home as any speech I’ve ever heard as far as a community in mourning,” Smith said. “It was as if I was right there and shook his hand myself.”
Smith, 42, grew up with Pinckney off of Bees Creek Road in Ridgeland. Even though Smith is a year older, he looked up to Sen. Pinckney. He saw Pinckney’s leadership emerge when he pledged a Jasper County High School fraternity.
As Pinckney rose into the senate seat, Smith wanted to do something to make his friend proud. He became the first teen director of the county’s Boys & Girls Club, giving kids an opportunity to experience potential careers. Boys & Girls Club proteges Charrae Priester and Bre’Anna Orr won Senator For a Day speech competitions and Jah’Juan Bess and Beacher-Orr participated.
Smith earned Pinckney’s praise.
“He was proud of what I was doing in my community,” Smith said. “I thought I was the one that was supposed to be proud of him. For him to tell me that — what an honor.”
Smith listened as President Obama spoke about the Confederate flag being a symbol of “systemic oppression,” and how for too long the country’s disregarded the “mayhem” caused by gun violence.
President Obama urged the country to not run away from the “uncomfortable truths” about prejudice and he hoped the nation would find what writer Marilyn Robinson called “the reservoir of goodness.”
“If we can find that grace, anything is possible,” President Obama said. “Amazing grace. Amazing grace.”
And then he paused for 13 seconds before leading the arena in a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Five thousand people were on their feet, singing along with the President of the United States.
How sweet the sound.
“My heart was filled. Not only did we lose somebody, but we gained unity amongst each other through our president,” Cliff Smith said.
For four hours during the uplifting homegoing, thousands sang and prayed and cheered as they celebrated Pinckney’s life.
Suspected killer Dylann Roof’s goal might have been to create racial division, but to Ridgeland’s Jake Brown, 80, the slayings created something else.
“Instead of creating hate, he created love,” Brown said.
His legacy will live on
The bus returned to Ridgeland at 7:45 p.m., but not before Jasper joined together once more. Two buses stopped for a buffet meal at Ryan’s in Charleston and friends, new and old, ate together and reflected on a memorable day.
Rebecca Patterson German, who grew up on Bees Creek Road and now lives in Bluffton, said the sense of joy is what Pinckney would have wanted. The service was a moment to share with the world.
“There’s nothing else we can do but keep him in our hearts,” she said.
Cliff Smith sat with his wife and next to the Boys & Girls Club kids he helped mentor, the county’s future.
He thought of the communal love that engulfed the thousands inside the arena.
“It was such a sense of togetherness, everyone coming together,” Smith said. “It was a moment of peace, not a moment of mourning. We know that Clementa’s legacy will live on.”