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The Clem Pinckney I Knew: Personal & Political Assassination in Charleston

Rev. Pinckney’s death isn’t just a personal tragedy but a political one and we’d do well to remember both. The Clem Pinckney I Knew: Personal & Political Assassination in Charleston

The first political campaign I ever ran was for Clementa “Clem” Pinckney back in 1997. I’d graduated from the University of Virginia and having taken campaigns classes with campaign guru Larry Sabato, I figured I knew everything there was to know about modern campaign strategy.

So when I walked down a dirt road in the sweltering 100 plus degree South Carolina heat to do some door knocking, I was ready for anything. Anything except an old black woman coming to the door in her day clothes, looking me up and down. Before I could ask any of my smarty pants questions she said, “Who’s kin are you?”

I had no idea what to say. Later on when I told Clem what happened he hit me with a laugh that was a mixture between the mirth of Geoffrey Holder and the soul of Michael Eric Dyson. He told me that in low country politics, people wanted to know that you loved them, cared for them, that you had family and kinship with the community. Everything else flowed from that. He was only 24.

Clem Pinckney and I couldn’t have been further apart in our upbringing, backgrounds or politics. I was hired as his campaign manager in 1997 because the courts had ruled that his district had to be re-drawn from a black majority to 50/50 forcing a special election after he’d been in office less than a year. From my upper class black bourgeois mid-Atlantic perspective I saw Clem’s district as an oppressive racial throwback, as if “Eyes on the Prize” never went to a commercial break.

Clem Pinckney and Jason Johnson in 1997.
Clem Pinckney and Jason Johnson in 1997.

Clem saw strong people, who were managing to survive in the face of active hostility from the state. When some white constituents complained to Clem that I was too “uppity” (because I looked them directly in the eye – yes a quote) I railed against the bigotry, but Clem advised strategies on how to circumvent it.

When I told Clem we needed to raise more money for the campaign he wanted more volunteers instead. The median income in his district was only about $14,000 a year then, and he didn’t want folks living paycheck to paycheck paying him, when it was his job to serve them. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong, we both knew the world we lived in, but while my rage and privilege made me want to fight, Clem’s calming patience in God gave him the confidence that victory was at hand through collective action and a moral drive.

He called me “city boy” (even though I spent my whole life in the suburbs). We spent hours driving around South Carolina in the insane southern heat, talking faith, life, love family and politics. He couldn’t believe it when I stared blankly out the window at a field in full bloom asking, “What’s that, pollen or something?” He laughed, gently correcting me: “Jason, that’s a cotton field.”

I’d never seen cotton growing before. Or live chickens, or people speaking Gullah, or an outhouse, for that matter. There were so many things I saw Clem navigate with ease while continuing to push legislation that would improve the lives of people living at the bottom of South Carolina’s racial and economic pecking order.

Over the next few days there will be stories about politics, history, race and both the Reverend and the Senator Clementa Pinckney. However, there will not enough about how the attack on him, and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church isn’t some tragic anomaly. It was a deeply personal and explicitly political attack on black lives and black political power. And any narrative that overlooks Clementa the man, the pastor and the politician is a tool of the same white racism that led to his murder.

I mention all of this first because I am personally pained by Clem’s death but second because I want to make it clear that the shooting at Emanuel was not some random act of violence by a deranged killer. It was a terrorist act, a massacre and an assassination by a white supremacist. Dylan Storm Roof is not crazy, he’s a racist, and a white supremacist and the end goal of white supremacy is the death of black people. White Supremacy and its younger more sanitized brother “Right Wing Politics” are destroying our nation, one neighborhood, one city, one dedicated pastor, one state senator at a time.

Dylan Roof is not a loner. His beliefs are tacitly encouraged by the American political right, his friend’s and cowardly politicians. This assassination of innocent men and women is simply the final manifestation of “birthers,” state’s rights advocates, voter ID laws, “take back our country” rhetoric and anti-PC pundits who rationalize frat kids singing about hangings as youthful hijinks. It’s all white supremacy and the end result of these beliefs isn’t just a lack of jobs, poor education and bad schools. It’s death, and murder and destruction. Dylan Roof didn’t kill Clementa Pinckney alone, he had plenty of help and encouragement along the way.

Now is not the time to avoid politics, we must engage and attack white supremacy in all of it’s forms and be willing to call out the political leaders who dog whistle it into existence for electoral gain.

Pinckney wasn’t just a pastor—he was a prominent State Senator, politically active in battles against poverty, policy brutality and racial discrimination. So this wasn’t the act of a crazy high-school dropout, Dylan Roof assassinated a state elected official, and symbolically attacked black political power in all of its forms.

The tears of Lindsay Graham and Nikki Haley, and the condolences of Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush mean nothing when they all support voter ID laws specifically designed to suppress black turnout and political power. This is simply a more civil, less violent form of the same white supremacy that drove Dylan Roof.

Clem Pinckney and Jason Johnson in 1997.
Clem Pinckney and Jason Johnson in 1997.Courtesy Jason Johnson

Clem and I won that runoff election with about 64 percent of the vote. But during the victory party, he noticed that I was standing off to myself not celebrating with the rest of the staff as much. He asked me why I wasn’t more excited, and I told him that the first campaign I ran was for my friend Sean Bryant at UVA, and he’d died a year earlier. I was thinking how sad it was that I couldn’t give him a call and share this first professional campaign victory with him. Clem gave me this big smile, with these pearly white teeth, hugged me and said, “Well you’ve always got me; you can call me after every campaign you win from now on.”

I haven’t run a campaign in years, and Clem Pinkney will never run again. This murder, massacre, assassination, act of terror took an old friend and colleague from me. But worse, that coddled racist took a father, a husband and a political advocate that can’t be replaced with nice words and empty discussions of healing.

Now is not the time to avoid politics, we must engage and attack white supremacy in all of it’s forms and be willing to call out the political leaders who dog whistle it into existence for electoral gain. We’re all “kin” when tragedies like this occur. It’s just a shame that the man who taught that to me will no longer be around to see it in action.