As I leave my beloved home of South Carolina for the first time this summer, I cannot help but reflect back on the intense few weeks many of us have lived through in our state…
June 17, 2015
It was a Wednesday. The State Senate was supposed to adjourn for the year two weeks earlier. But this session had been an interminable mix of fake issues, boredom, and political rhetoric woven together into an inefficient and frustrating record of failures. We call that “less government” in our state.
So the Senate was called back into extraordinary session the week of June 16th to grind out a budget before the government shut down on July 1.
As a rookie member of the Finance committee, I had the luck of sitting on the lowest seat, closest to the door. Behind me and to my left sat a quiet and thoughtful man, Senator Clementa Pinckney — ‘Clem’ to those of us who served with him. Clem rarely spoke in committee. But when he did, his deep, smooth and rumbling voice echoed.
Liberty Fellows discuss responding to the June 17 shooting in Charleston, SC.
Clem and I sat next to each other on the floor of the state senate this term and have been seated near each other for more than ten years. We started as the two youngest senators in South Carolina, gaining seniority as time went by.
Over the last few years, we became closer friends as he supported my campaigns for governor. Clem was an African Methodist Episcopal preacher, and he would meet me in churches across the state to vouch for me and talk about the urgent need for change in our state. He always called me “brother” when we spoke in churches together. Clem was the oddity of a politician who never talked about himself.
During the governor’s campaign of 2014, I called for South Carolina to lower the Confederate Flag from the state capital grounds. The goal was to restart efforts to move the flag that had stalled in recent years. I told friends that if we made it an issue, the flag could come down within three years regardless of whether I was the next governor. The incumbent governor said it should keep flying and mocked our efforts. But Clem and others understood and appreciated the stand I took, even if my campaign staff was not thrilled. Of course, I had no idea that unimaginable and horrific events would soon swamp Charleston and the whole state like a tidal wave, rushing the entire issue forward.
On that day in Finance Committee, Clem was troubled about a provision he didn’t think would be good for foster kids. It’s the kind of issue he cared about, even when it gained scant attention from the committee. Clem cared about “the least of these.” He cared about the voiceless. He cared about foster kids. He cared, which is a somewhat rare trait in the modern political world.
We adjourned the meeting. Clem and I and other Democrats headed to our small conference room to eat lunch together and strategize before the senate session began.
At lunch, Clem was asked to say the blessing. His deep voice rose quickly, loudly, smoothly. He blessed our food and thanked God for all “he had bestowed upon us.” Clem’s blessings of our food were always prayers of thanksgiving, and always quickly delivered. I appreciated both.
“Clem, l love those AME prayers; they sure aren’t the Baptist kind,” I said to him getting ready to deliver the punch line, “because they are always short.” It was a running joke with us. Clem smiled. He smiled his big, kind, gentle smile. The smile that said everything was alright in his world.
He was murdered less than nine hours later, in his own church, with eight other members of his flock.
Residents gather at the Morris Brown A.M.E. Church in Charleston after the June 17th shooting. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Change is just harder in the South, harder than it should be. But it feels like a little bit of the South has changed this summer.
The Confederate Battle Flag has flown boldly on the grounds of many Southern statehouses since the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. In my home state of South Carolina, the legislature ran it atop the Capitol Dome in 1961 where it flew for almost 40 years. In 2000, the legislature and governor moved it from atop the dome to wave in front of the Statehouse on a tall brass pole. Or as many have said, “moved from the top to in your face.”
Many of us in South Carolina, including some members of the Liberty Fellowship, have urged our leaders for years to retire the Confederate Flag from the statehouse and place it in a more appropriate museum setting. How could we fly a symbol that divides our people on the front lawn of the statehouse and feel good about it?
In the hot summer of 2015, we finally learned how a Confederate Flag gets removed from our statehouse grounds. Here’s what it took: first the murder of nine innocent victims because they were black. Second, Confederate flag license plates showing up on the killer’s car. Next, the media finding photos of the killer flying the Confederate Flag. And finally, the world learning that he wanted to start a race war.
Within a few weeks, the years-long campaign — which included marching, begging, debating, rallying, logical arguments and a few political suicides, all unsuccessful — finally came to an end. And the flag came down and was placed in a museum where people can learn the good and the bad about my state’s history.
Even with the racist massacre driving attention, retiring the flag was not easy to accomplish. The initial reaction of our state’s highest leaders was mushy and dodgy, basically saying that now was not the time to discuss the Confederate Flag. But a small group of us, including several Liberty Fellows, decided that now was indeed the time. We mourned the loss of our friend, Clem, at the same time we began to make public appearances and support rallies calling for the removal of the flag. Our goal was to place so much pressure on our elected officials, from the governor on down, that they would have no choice but to change their positions on removing the flag. It was not an easy effort, but it was a successful one.
Behind the scenes, dozens of political skirmishes played out, including an effort by some to fly a different Confederate flag. Through relentless focus and strategy, those of us working to retire the battle flag prevailed in a series of very close votes in the Senate and House. We passed a bill retiring the flag just twenty two days after Clem and his church members were killed. And it came down, ending years of turmoil, division and boycotts relating to the symbol.
Some people say that during these three weeks, South Carolina came together and we saw leadership. As the chief sponsor of the legislation to remove the flag, I am thankful for what was accomplished and especially proud of the individual Liberty Fellows who helped rally public support and put pressure on elected officials to change their long held positions.
But as someone who loves my state dearly, I can’t help but be sad that it took a massacre for South Carolina to do the right thing. And as the senate seatmate of Clem Pinckney, I wish more than anything that he could have been with us when the flag came down instead of being the reason it did.