Monday, June 22, 2015

Henry Louis Gates: If Clementa Pinckney Had Lived


Henry Louis Gates Jr.
New York Times Op Ed.
June 18, 2015
(Link)

"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.
 
“I think about what it must have felt like to be a young black man in America” back then, Mr. Pinckney told me, “to see the state and the country go through tremendous change and to have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of everybody.” He added that if Smalls, an escaped slave, could make “substantial, systematic changes,” then “I have the same kind of responsibility to work to make a difference.”
 
"Mr. Pinckney paused to clarify his words."

"“Now, well, do I say I’m Smalls?” he said. “No, because there’s only one, there’s only been one Robert Smalls. But I think, as being a House member who served in the old Beaufort district that he used to serve in and a state senator that serves that same area, I think I ought to give it my absolute best to try to make a difference with the lives of the people I represent and the people of South Carolina, whether it be in supporting public education, supporting our troops, or wanting to see all people do well in South Carolina.”
 
"All of these things, this quietly impressive man did, and did nobly.

"What makes rereading the transcript of our interview so poignant for me today is the reminder that, for one still so young, Mr. Pinckney was deeply aware of the history he carried within himself, a history of the courageous and the slain, of the triumphant and the terrorized. He was fluent in the lives and careers of brave black people who had served state and church since the Civil War. He was acutely conscious of the missed opportunities of Reconstruction, of the contradictions that could have been settled, of the innocent lives that could have been spared, a century before the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, had Americans following the Civil War only been willing to put racial healing and equal economic opportunity first.
"The “unfinished work” of America — to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — didn’t prevent him from loving the South and his country, and feeling a claim to its blessings. “I think it really says that America is changing,” he said of President Obama’s election, “and I think it signals to the world that the American dream is still alive and well.”
 
"Today, our interview seems so long ago. I asked him that day if we were still fighting the Civil War in South Carolina. He answered: “I think South Carolina has — and across the South we have — a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s histories. We have, you know, many reenactments across the state and sometimes in our General Assembly I feel that we’re fighting some of the old battles.”

"To know him, even over the course of an autumn Carolina afternoon, was to know a man who cherished the values on which our republic was founded, and who held an abiding faith that the great promise of America could, one day, be fulfilled. He was a unifier who, this past spring, taught us how to mourn in communion with one another, following the police slaying of Walter L. Scott, a black man, just north of his city. I don’t believe that he had the capacity to imagine the depth of malice and anger that came down on his congregation, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, on Wednesday night.

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