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Clementa Pinckney

The Charleston church shooting, a personal perspective

Like most TV news journalists, I’ve been something of a nomad during my more than 20 years in the business. You bounce from town to town seeking better pay and opportunities. Each time, it takes a year or more just to learn a community – what the important local issues are, the geography, and who’s who in each town across the region.

I’ve been in Raleigh/Durham more than six years now. Before that it was Tampa, but the Savannah TV market and the three South Carolina counties it serves was my first job right out of college. For six years, I was “Low Country Bureau Chief” doing my best to find stories of interest to both South Carolina and Georgia audiences.

Beaufort County includes well-to-do Hilton Head – packed with golf courses, resorts, and wealthy retirees. But when I arrived in the early 90s, driving off the island into Jasper County was something not unlike time travel.

Desperately poor, most children attended public schools where the paint was literally peeling of the walls and the roofs leaked. The wealthier families that could afford it sent their children to a private local academy. That just seemed to be the status quo and no change was anticipated.

So in November, 1996, I showed up in Jasper County expecting to dutifully report on an election just like many others I had covered before it. Instead, the three-term sheriff and the county council chairman who’d served for 20 years were tossed out and this young man – just 23 years old – was elected as their new representative in the General Assembly.

Clementa Pinckney looked incredibly young, but he clearly had a razor sharp mind along with a sort of moral authority that made you take notice. I think when I talked to him that night it was probably the first time he’d ever looked into a TV camera, but he handled himself very well.

It was the first of many meetings as I usually travelled to Columbia every year for the opening of the General Assembly and sought interviews with our local political delegation. 

In 2000, I left South Carolina and gradually lost touch with most of the people I knew there. I didn’t know Pinckney later became the pastor of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, and when I first heard of the shooting this week, it took me a while to realize who he was. 

On a daily basis in the news business we report on horrible things ranging from accidents, natural disasters, and wars. Over time, you develop personal defenses to cope, but every once in a while a story gets through your armor and leaves you pondering the meaning of it all.

When I interviewed Pinckney all those years ago, it was obvious that he would become somebody of significance. I’m trying very hard to believe that the significance is what he achieved while he was alive and not that because he made national news by being assassinated in his church.

Pinckney was one of those eloquent activists that stands like a small pillar of granite in a rushing river – refusing to yield and shaming the power brokers into doing the right thing every once in a long while.

The very least we can do to honor his memory is to try harder to get away from the deep polarization that has become the norm in America over the last decades. We will never make any forward progress unless we can have honest and meaningful discussions about race, politics, economic inequality, and gun violence without resorting to the easy political strategy of divide and conquer.