Reading the news coverage over the past week of the federal trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who senselessly gunned down nine black people during Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, has brought back memories from when I had an up-close view of people affected by the massacre.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, I was at a library two hours away from Charleston in Bluffton, S.C. (the mainland across from Hilton Head Island), where I was living and working at the time.
I covered a town hall meeting on a controversial proposed extension of a parkway, returned home, filed a story and heard for the first time reports of a shooting at a church in Charleston.
Unfortunately in today’s world, shootings in public places that lead to the deaths of numerous innocent people have become too frequent — so much so that most of them tend to get lost in the shuffle of a 24/7 news cycle. But this one immediately had my attention as I watched the first police news conference in the immediate aftermath.
A reporter on the scene asked the law enforcement official if he could confirm that state Sen. Clementa Pinckney had been in the church at the time of the shooting, and my jaw dropped. When I read at the end of a Charleston Post & Courier report that Pinckney had not returned phone calls, my heart sank.
A native son of Jasper County, which neighbors Beaufort County, the one I lived and worked in, Pinckney was first elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 1996 at just 23 years old. He would become a state senator four years later.
I met Pinckney a couple of times in passing while covering local legislative delegation meetings. As some people would later describe him, I can confirm that he commanded the attention of the room with his presence whenever he walked in. He had a calm demeanor, but his deep, booming voice left an impression on me.
After his death, Pinckney’s colleagues from both sides of the political aisle described him as “the best among us.” A fierce advocate for the poor in his district — one of the poorest in South Carolina — Pinckney, by all accounts, embodied everything a public servant should strive to represent.
He gave back to his community, particularly through his work in the church. He had been head pastor at historic Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton prior to taking over at Emanuel in 2010.
He was the first of the “Charleston Nine” to be killed there on June 17, 2015, in a place that is supposed to provide sanctuary for all, by a cold-hearted killer who was welcomed inside by the victims and survivors with open arms less than an hour earlier.
When I think about the greatest virtues of being a public servant, Pinckney always comes to mind. That was also true of everyone else I talked to the morning after the shooting. From his legislative colleagues and local government officials, to friends and former fellow church members, there was a profound sadness and sense of loss.
Most of all, as a young father, I thought about Pinckney’s wife and two daughters and the void that could never be completely filled by his loss.
In the wake of such a tragedy, though, came hope.
Two days after the shooting, a memorial service for Pinckney and the other victims was held in Campbell Chapel. The service, attended by numerous local church leaders of different faiths and denominations, along with local government representatives, provided a chance for a community to begin to heal.
Its message was one of hope and concluded with a unison singing of “This Little Light of Mine.”
In his writings prior to the shooting, Roof said he hoped his actions would ignite a race war.
What I saw in the church that Friday morning instead was people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds coming together in a display of solidarity. It was triumph of light over darkness.
The sense of community I felt that day still sticks with me. It’s regrettable that we sometimes, absent a tragedy, forget about the ties that bind us as people.
But what a wonderful world this would be if we could show the same sense of unity and spirit when tackling the many issues we face today.
Make no mistake about it. There should have been painful lessons learned from the shooting, which could have easily been prevented if it weren’t for egregious clerical errors that led to Roof being able to legally obtain a firearm he had no business possessing (another issue for another column).
Part of coming together is taking meaningful action to prevent as many of these acts of violence from happening again as possible. We cannot stop all acts of violence, but that’s no excuse not to try. It starts with showing empathy for everyone.
I’m optimistic about our chances.
As the wheels of justice churn toward Dylann Roof, the fundamental decency of humankind is still evident all around if you look close enough.
It thrives through the legacy of those like Clementa Pinckney who sought to build something in this world and not destroy it.
Scott Thompson is editor of the Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.