Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was among the nine people gunned down in the historic sanctuary Wednesday night allegedly by a young white man who witnesses say spent more than an hour with the congregation in the church before he began shooting.
Pinckney, who had led the church since 2010, has also served in the state legislature since 1997. At 23 years old, he was one of the youngest individuals and the youngest African American to be elected to serve in South Carolina.
There, he represented Jasper County, where he grew up and attended public schools. Over his years, he advocated for legislation to reduce violence committed by both civilians and police. In the wake of North Charleston officer shooting and killing 50-year-old Walter Scott, in which a bystander video disproved the officer’s account of the incident, Pinckney co-sponsored a bill requiring all officers to wear body cameras.
“There are many who said there is no way a police officer would shoot someone in the back six, seven, eight times, but when we were able to see the video, see the gunshots…see him die face-down on the ground…we said, ‘I believe,’ he told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “Now, we as legislators have a great opportunity to allow sunshine into this process. Please give us new eyes for seeing.”
The bill passed and was signed into law on June 10.
In his other efforts, he was less successful. In 2013, Pinckney introduced a bill to mandate stricter background checks for gun purchases, specifically calling for firearms dealer to conduct a criminal background check, a family background check, a medical and psychological evaluation, and “a personal interview to determine if a person is mentally fit” before selling or otherwise transferring an assault rifle. It remained stuck in committee. Meanwhile, bills to allow people to carry weapons in more and more places have sailed through the South Carolina statehouse, which has voted to allow weapons in cars with children in them, on the State House grounds, and in any private home or business.
Though concealed firearms are not currently allowed in churches, some of Pinckney’s colleagues had been pushing for that to change.
Over his years in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate, Pinckney also authored bills to provide more resources for domestic violence survivors, raise funds for the school districts he represented and protecting the environment.
The young lawmaker started out as an even younger preacher, beginning delivering sermons at age 13 and receiving his first pastoral position at age 18, following a family tradition that included four generations of A.M.E. pastors. Since taking over at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 2010, one of the oldest churches in the South, he worked to keep the radical history of the congregation and the denomination alive, noting in a 2013 speech that A.M.E. was founded “in a fit of civil disobedience” reacting to racial inequality in the church.
“What this denomination stands for is, really, is the universal vision of all people being treated fairly under the law as God sees us in His sight,” he said.
Pinckney is survived by his wife Jennifer and his two children Eliana and Malana.