Reflecting on 2015: A June night’s ‘call for unity’
In a year of many indelible moments, a June night stands among the most memorable. A vigil after Sen. Pinckney’s death brought the county together to grieve and aspire to promote goodwill:
It’s strange how a moment of sorrow can be filled with such hope.
The night of Thursday, June 18 was one of heartache and pain and filled with many questions.
Sen. Clementa Pinckney had been shot and killed the prior night at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and a stunned county held impromptu vigils and cried and hugged and realized the hard, scary news was no longer only on their television screens or recounted in distant datelines in newspapers.
Pinckney grew up in Ridgeland. He graduated from Jasper County High School. He’d risen to the Statehouse in Columbia. And then a 21-year-old white supremacist allegedly gunned down Pinckney and eight others who had welcomed the young man into their church.
Suddenly, Jasper County was part of the national news.
At Turpin Park in Ridgeland that night close to 200 people gathered. They were from throughout the county, a mix of races and ages. They told stories. They laughed. They prayed. They held candles.
They held hands.
But they did not strike back with anger. Pinckney touched many lives in Jasper, from Bees Creek Road to the high school halls to the little league baseball fields. He had many friends and associates who had a right to burn with fury.
Instead, from Rev. Donald Sheftall to probate judge Albert “Buster” Kleckley, the community focused on coming together. Pinckney’s death shocked everyone, but the focus that night — the year’s saddest night — was not about division, it was about a united county.
There was grief, but also a rallying cry to not let Pinckney’s death quickly become an afterthought once the cameras and memorials and daily coverage subsided. It was a night to realize the impact we all have on each other.
“It was a calling for unity,” said Sheftall, about six months after he spoke about his cousin to those gathered at Turpin Park.
“I was taken aback by that night,” Kleckley said last week. “It was amazing how the community came out.”
Six months later Kleckley, who played youth baseball with Pinckney and spoke eloquently that night about the good that could come of such a tragedy, thinks the community realized it takes everybody to move the county forward. He knows Pinckney’s death impacted not only friends from the public school, but from Thomas Heyward, Step of Faith and Abundant Life.
“I feel like the community’s come together a lot since that night,” he said.
Sheftall sees challenges. He remembers just days after Pinckney’s death a man spinning his car in a church yard, Confederate Flag waving. He’s worried about the school board’s direction after the latest turnover of leadership.
And Sheftall is pained thinking about the county’s homicides.
“It’s tragic in our county that young people don’t value life,” Sheftall said. “That’s hurting our county more than anything else – a lack of valuing life. That’s the tragic part.”
Jasper’s unity is a work in progress, but true work is being done. Next year, thanks to coaches Nic Shuford and Jahmaal Nelson, Thomas Heyward Academy and Ridgeland-Hardeeville High will compete in a football game. It will mark the first time the private and public schools will match up in a varsity football game that counts. Communities will intertwine.
“It’s a great step in the right direction,” Kleckley said.
Kleckley hopes it will be a building block in the community, an extension of a June night when we were given a glimpse at what could be a harmonious county.
People — black, white, political leaders, community advocates, neighbors, strangers, children — joined in a circle, heads bowed, candles lit.
Reach Anthony Garzilli at firstname.lastname@example.org