Clementa Carlos “Clem” Pinckney, was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor, South Carolina State Senator, and rising star in the national Democratic Party. On June 17, 2015, he and eight local black leaders were assassinated in Charleston, South Carolina, during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that Pinckney pastored.
Raised in the liberation theology tradition, Pinckney seamlessly intersected his faith with civil rights activism and public policy. Born on July 30, 1973, in Beaufort, South Carolina to John and Theopia (Stevenson) Pinckney, young Pinckney in 1987 followed in the path of his great-grandfather, Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson, and uncle, Rev. Levern Stevenson, and began apprentice preaching in St. John AME Church in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Four years later during his freshman year at the AME-run Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, Pinckney became a preacher and freshman class president. He also gained valuable exposure to the South Carolina legislature as a page at the Statehouse. By Pinckney’s junior year, these experiences set the foundation for his becoming the palmetto state’s emerging star in electoral politics. While at Allen University Pinckney joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
In 1994, Pinckney was recognized by Ebony magazine as one of the “Top College Students in America.” During that summer he participated in the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program at Princeton University where he researched public policy and international affairs. The following year, Pinckney was elected as senior class president at Allen University. He graduated in 1995 magna cum laude with a Business Administration degree.
In 1996, just 18 months after graduation, Jasper County’s black majority elected Pinckney to the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 1999, Pinckney married University of South Carolina (USC) student Jennifer Benjamin. In 2000, at the age of 27, Pinckney became the youngest South Carolina African American to be elected to the State Senate.
In office, Pinckney worked closely with policymakers ranging from fellow State House of Representative member Baraki Sellers, the son of South Carolina activist Cleveland Sellers, to U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a Democratic Congressional leader. Pinckney’s work with Clyburn resulted in much needed federal stimulus money for South Carolina following the 2008 economic collapse.
In 2008 Pinckney graduated from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina and two years later was appointed pastor of “Mother Emanuel” the oldest AME church in the South, where early 19th century anti-slavery resistance leader Denmark Vesey had been active. Pinckney was elevated to the post at the relatively young age of 37. During the 2012 presidential election, he was President Barack Obama’s political surrogate in South Carolina.
Pinckney linked three major concerns: the social gospel tradition, civil rights activism, and policymaking. They were seen in his work on gun violence and police reform. He pushed for mandatory police body cameras both before and after the fatal police shooting of North Charleston resident Walter Scott on April 4, 2015.
Just two months later, Pinckney and eight other African Americans were killed during a Bible study session by a 21 year old “southern pride” racist, Dylann Roof, who had been welcomed into their gathering. On June 26, 2015 President Barack Obama gave the eulogy for Rev. Pinckney at his funeral to an audience of 5,000 people at the College of Charleston’s TD Area near Emanuel AME Church.
Senator Clementa C. Pinckney is survived by wife, Jennifer, and daughters, Eliana and Malana Pinckney.