The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, knew he was in a dangerous line of work. He may not have known that particular Wednesday evening would be his last, but he was the rock of a church that had been baptized in blood and fire.
Pinckney certainly knew the story of Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E., whose church was razed to the ground and whose life was ended because of his efforts to set blacks free. Vesey himself was a free man, and wealthy, and yet he marched boldly and knowingly toward the peril of death by trying to lead a slave revolt. The judges who sentenced him to death remarked on this:
“It is difficult to imagine,” says the sentence finally passed on Denmark Vesey, “what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprize so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.” Is slavery, then, a thing so intrinsically detestable, that a man thus favored will engage in a plan thus desperate merely to rescue his children from it?
Is slavery so intrinsically detestable that a free and wealthy man will risk death merely to rescue his children from it?
Vesey’s answer? Yes. One of Vesey’s co-conspirators recounted his sentiments: “He was satisfied with his own condition, being free, but, as all his children were slaves, he wished to see what could be done for them."
Vesey’s chief co-conspirator was Peter Poyas, another man who marched boldly toward the peril of death. While in prison, Poyas and a cellmate were tortured and threatened by their jailors to extract the names of their accomplices:
[Poyas’s] companion, wearied out with pain and suffering, and stimulated by the hope of saving his own life, at last began to yield. Peter raised himself, leaned upon his elbow, looked at the poor fellow, saying quietly, “Die like a man,” and instantly lay down again.
Like these men, Pinckney felt his work was both necessary and not safe. “Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness,” Pinckney had said to a room of visitors to his church two years prior, “that's what church is all about. Freedom to worship, and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be, and freedom to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes, you maybe have to die, like Denmark Vesey, to do that.”
If you have not yet listened to Pinckney’s recounting of his church and its history, spare 10 minutes and watch.
Clementa Pinckney knew the history of his own city. He probably knew the name Benjamin Franklin Randolph, another black minister and state senator from Charleston to have died at the hands of angry white men, 147 years prior.
He may not have suspected that the person who had joined his small fellowship of believers at Mother Emanuel that night would sit with these few people for an hour, listen to their prayers and their blessings, then take up a gun and end their lives. But he knew that humankind had been cursed from its beginnings by hatred so potent it could be lethal—the third human mentioned in Pinckney’s Bible, after all, had killed another man out of jealousy for what he had.
Much attention will be given to tracing the motives that gave rise to these murders. There will be news broadcasts and lengthy stories about the mind of the killer. At the end, we’ll probably conclude—as Karl Ove Knausgaard did when he reported on the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik—that those motives, whether you call them “hate” or “illness” or “terrorism,” are petty, ancient, and banal.
So let’s spare a thought for those who undertook the dangerous work of prayer and fellowship, and were killed for it. For Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, the Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., and the Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
And I don’t know whether they got to say it when their meeting was abruptly and violently ended, so I’ll say it now.