The preacher who tried to heal the wounds of Charleston fell victim to neo-Confederate ideology in the city where the Civil War began.
By David W. Blight
The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was murdered last week at a Bible study session in his own house of worship. What he died for is almost impossible to capture or clarify right now. But one cause he definitely died for in witheringly painful irony, was the reconciliation of the Civil War in the city where it began. He died in the state where the Confederate battle flag still waves on the Capitol grounds, where neo-Confederate memory and politics endure with a tenacity like nowhere else, and where Pinckney was one of only two votes in the state senate opposing the latest South Carolina voter ID law designed to limit the franchise for black and brown people. He died in a politics that kills.
Just two months ago, on April 19, 2015, Pinckney and I shared the speaking duties, along with Chaplain Joel Harris of the Citadel, at an extraordinary commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in Hampton Park, Charleston. Some four years earlier I had joined Charleston’s remarkable mayor, Joseph Riley, and others in unveiling a special large plaque at the same site, commemorating the “First Memorial Day.”
In the final months of the Civil War, approximately 268 Union soldiers died in an open-air prison in the infield of the lowcountry slaveholders’ horse-racing track, known then as the Washington Jockey Club. Charleston was not evacuated and occupied by federal forces until late February, 1865. In March and April of that spring, with most of Charleston in complete ruin from wartime bombardment, African Americans began to try to salvage their liberated lives, in part, by asserting their ownership of, and new meanings for, public spaces. At the race track, they found the mass graves of the Union dead who had been hastily buried behind the grandstand. Black workers reinterred all the bodies in individual mounds; around the graves they constructed a wooden fence, with an entrance covered with an arch. They white-washed the fence, and on the arch they wrote: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then on May 1, 1865, black Carolinians, almost all former slaves, joined by several units of Union soldiers, white and black, along with northern missionaries and abolitionist school teachers, held a solemn march, bearing armloads of flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body,” around the oval track of the race course. After their deliberate parade, as many as could fit gathered in the graveyard; five local black preachers read from scripture and a black childrens’ choir sang spirituals, the “Star Spangled Banner,” and “America the Beautiful.” Then they broke up into picnics, listened to speeches, and children chased each other and their dreams while the troops held maneuvers. African Americans, along with their Union army and abolitionist allies, had created the great American tradition of Decoration Day. And for them, they had declared the reality and meaning of their own emancipation; it was their new Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.
Later in the nineteenth century, after the Confederate Lost Cause tradition had solidified control over the public memory of the Civil War in Charleston, the old race course became Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, the former Confederate general and post-Reconstruction white-supremacist governor of South Carolina. The Union dead were eventually all removed and reinterred in the national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina, their original gravesite obliterated along with the archway announcing their martyrdom. Hampton Park was re-landscaped and hosted fairs and exhibitions; today it sits prominently and beautifully adjacent to the Citadel, the state’s military academy founded out of the Confederate war effort and its memory.
On April 19, I was the first speaker after the Citadel Chamber Choir sang the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The skies were gray and windy; thunderstorms threatened but did not visit our ceremony held before the mixed crowd, black and white. We had gathered near the site where the old grandstand stood a century and a half ago. I recounted how the first Decoration Day came to happen at that place, trying to get the audience to grasp some of the profound meanings that those who held it may have wanted to convey. I especially stressed that they were commemorating their own version of earthly and spiritual victory—the freedom of the slaves, the liberation of South Carolina from the Confederacy, and the triumph of the United States, the federal government, over the attempt to destroy it. My job was merely to be a historian telling the story.
But Pinckney was the heart and soul of the event; it was for him to declare the higher meanings and longer purposes of our assembly. He took the lectern and delivered an 11-minute homily based on Second Samuel: 18-19. As soon as he began, one could feel past and present meet. A sense of history seemed to penetrate with every burst of the wind in our faces and the sound of his deep voice.
As he had no doubt done many times before, Pinckney offered a brief history of Emanuel church, of how it had been burned down in the wake of Denmark Vesey’s aborted slave rebellion planned at the site in 1822. He managed to garner polite laughter from the audience about the audacity of Vesey’s claim that blacks had a place in America’s democratic promises. Pinckney exuded kindness and humor even when he was revisiting a very painful history. He invoked the memory of Daniel Alexander Payne, the Charleston-born African Methodist Episcopal Bishop who helped revive Mother Emanuel during the Civil War in 1862. Then, the pastor named his text and read from part of Second Samuel.
Here was the agonizing Old Testament story of civil war and family strife with utterly tragic consequences. King David has just won a major victory over his enemies, his city and his people are saved. But he learns that his beloved son, Absalom, had fought against his armies. “And the victory that day turned into mourning unto all the people: for the people heard say that day how the king was grieved for his son.” David’s general, Joab, delivers the news as the king sits in the “chamber over the gate.” “But the king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, ‘O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Absalom had died in battle, fighting against his father.
Pinckney reminded us that we were commemorating a national event of equal gravity and tragedy. Our Civil War, said the minister, had been brother against brother, “father against son, generation against generation.” Then he found a refrain: “We stand in the gate, the archway, and remember a war that divided houses.” King David had both won and lost in his divided house and he wailed of his pain. Reverend Pinckney pushed on with the image of “divided houses,” but to remind us that from such depths of agony can come a dawn of knowledge, understanding, and even-tempered healing. Pinckney was suddenly the voice of reconciliation for the vast chasms left by the Civil War, not merely the sins of Christians. He admitted that there had been some blacks loyal to the Confederacy in their own homegrown ways. Especially in a place of tortured memory like South Carolina, he argued, we should acknowledge “all the blood” lost on both sides.
So inclusive—so reconciliationist—was Reverend Pinckney’s message that momentarily it troubled me. But he drew deep from the Bible and reminded us that “God is no respecter of persons or causes.” A native of South Carolina, a pastor and politician, Pinckney had long ago learned how to navigate Civil War memory in his state. He rounded out his homily with the image of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, extending “honor” to all the dead. Pinckney ended by saying that Hampton Park may not have experienced a “Gettysburg,” but it was equally “hallowed ground” because of the sacred ceremony of 1865 that we had assembled to remember.
Civil wars force impossible choices, leave devastation beyond human control, and make people murder their own kin, their best friends, and even their loving hosts at Bible study. Consumed by hatred and jealous rivalry, Absalom murdered his brother Amnon, and then went to war to seize his father’s throne.
Our ceremony ended poignantly as Chaplain Harris told of his Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather who fought in the Union army and lived to marry a woman whose father fought in the Confederate army. A young female Citadel cadet bugler stood off to the side of the platform and played “Taps.” Then we all rose and sang “America the Beautiful.” Pinckney and I held the program together and sang into the wind.
No one could know that two months later he would be dead, murdered by the handgun of a young assassin who would slaughter the forgiver, the voice of reconciliation, an assassin consumed not only by hatred and neo-Confederate white supremacy, but by a broader politics that suppresses the right to vote, foments racism on talk radio, the internet and television, a politics that kills. South Carolina—America—is breeding its own Absaloms; they will kill their fathers, their brothers, their kings, and lest we find a new politics, they will continue to make us wail.