Politics

Henry Louis Gates: If Clementa Pinckney Had Lived

The Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in 2011. (Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via Associated Press)
The Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in 2011. (Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via Associated Press)

(New York Times) – I have no doubt that had the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney lived, he would have become known — and celebrated — across our country for his leadership, rather than sealed immortally in tragedy, one more black martyr in a line stretching back to the more than 800 slave voyages that ended at Charleston Harbor.

I know this because I filmed a long interview with Mr. Pinckney — who was killed in his church in Charleston, S.C., along with eight congregants on Wednesday evening — for a PBS documentary series three years ago. It was clear that there was a reason this young man had been called to preach at 13, to minister at 18, to serve in the State Legislature at 23, and to shepherd one of America’s most historic black churches at 26, reminding us of other prodigies — and martyrs — for whom the Good Book has served as a bedrock of public service. He was 41 when he died.

It was Oct. 26, 2012, shortly before the last presidential election, and I was talking to Mr. Pinckney and to State Representative Kenneth F. Hodges about Robert Smalls, a slave who, at the height of the Civil War, commandeered a Confederate ship to sail to freedom beyond Charleston Harbor and ended up returning home to serve in the State Legislature during Reconstruction — representing the very area these two men now served.

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