CHARLESTON — Clementa Pinckney leaned in and listened intently Monday evening as the living members of the Cannon Street All-Stars regaled the gathering with feats of unintentional icons and accidental legends.
It was a time of sorrow, for the lone remaining coach of the All-Stars had passed.
He was a giant, said former All-Star Gus Holt. I dont give out accolades, just like that, but he truly was.
Lee James Bennett Sr. left a legacy so rich and so full of achievement that Pinckney, a state senator from Ridgeland, was struggling with a way to touch all the bases in the eulogy he had to deliver Tuesday morning.
So he touched all the bases.
Lee Bennett loved baseball, Pinckney said, addressing Bennetts friends and family at Mother Emanuel, a church located one Ruthian blast from the former grounds of the field where Bennett coached.
He marched onto the field out of that heavenly dugout one day and as he did so, he remembered the rules of the game, Pinckney said. And how the heavenly coach told him to live his life and round the important bases to be a good man.
In 90 years of living, Bennett did just that.
When Brother Bennett had his swing at-bat, he made it to first base and he remembered what lifted up His name was his creativity. Using his hands to take inanimate objects and giving them meaning, Pinckney said.
When Emily Singleton speaks of Bennett, she speaks of a couch full of pillows. So, too, do many fellow members of Mother Emanuel. Many have odd little carvings or popsicle stick crosses. The Rev. John Gillison, the churchs presiding elder, had an odd sculpture that defied description.
Lets call it a creative device, Gillison said. A piece of wood with these I call them spokes coming out of it.
Bennett told Gillison that those seemingly random spokes revealed the name of Jesus if he looked at it just right.
But you have to look at it a certain way to see it, Gillison said.
So, Gillison held it up, down, to his left and to his right.
I started to think I didnt know the name of Jesus, Gillison said with a laugh.
A few days later, he picked it up once more, and immediately, it could be seen.
May the work he has done continue to speak for him, Gillison said. He has done his work and sung his song.
One of the lyrics in the song of Bennetts life is Let them play, a line he repeated constantly when fighting for the all-black Cannon Street teams right to play in the 1955 Little League World Series.
Then there was that second base Brother Bennett went around. We know that he was a man of community service, a man of brotherly love, a man who worked in the community to make it better, Pinckney said.
Bennett was but a string in the tapestry that was the peninsula during the early-to-mid-20th century. All people in the predominantly black part of Charleston shared hard-working traits and an ingrained duty to serve their community.
After long days at the naval shipyard, Bennett and the other men who would become the coaches of the Cannon Street All-Stars shook off fatigue to teach the sport they loved.
Bennett was a two-sport standout in his youth, equally blessed in baseball and football. He was one of the founders of the Charleston Bears Athletic Club, a group that would go on to become a significant provider of scholarships to underprivileged students.
In 1955, he signed a charter to create a new Little League organization called the Cannon Street All-Stars. At the time, Little League leaders bragged on the fact their community had the only black chartered league in the South.
We heard of the legendary Brother Bennett, who said if a group of young men plays baseball and played hard, they deserved to play well and deserved to go as far as the game would let them go, Pinckney said. Brother Bennett said let the boys play.
Before long, those same leaders would decry, divide and disavow the existence of the All-Stars, leading to one of the key civil rights showdowns of the 1950s.
Social progress had been fouled off. At the 1955 Little League state tournament, every team forfeited rather than play the All-Stars. Teams at the regional tournament followed suit, so the All-Stars advanced to the Little League World Series by default.
Once there, the organization banned the All-Stars, saying their titles were not earned on the field. As the All-Stars became the focal point of a national debate on race, those teams angered by Little Leagues refusal to revoke Cannons charter altogether broke away from the organization to create Dixie Youth Baseball.
To penalize, to be heavy-handed and take away the game from kids, innocent victims is wrong, Holt said. Kids dont mess up. Adults do. Like (Bennett) said, only the ball is white. Lets play ball. Let the kids play.
There was a third base. I would call it a pillow. He was a strong, prominent member of Mother Emanuel, Pinckney said.
The ancient church was founded in 1818. One of its founding families was named Bennett. The church was one of the places Denmark Vesey formulated his plan for a slave rebellion. And when Vesey was arrested and executed for his role in the conspiracy, at least two Bennetts died at his side.
Gillison arrived at Mother Emanuel in 1988 and about a minute later found himself in the heart of Hurricane Hugo. The churchs steeple was torn away and the soaring stained glass window behind the pulpit bowed dangerously into the church, its support beams warping and cracking.
When the winds died down, no one knew what to do. As everyone tended to their own needs, Bennett grabbed some plywood and a ladder and toiled to save the glorious, nearly three-story work of art.
Its worth noting at the time of Hugo, Bennett was 66 years old.
Home the most important base
Its good to get to first base. Its good to get to second base. Its good to be at third, but Brother Bennett realized a good man takes care of home. A good man understands he is nothing if his family is not satisfied, Pinckney said.
A member of Mother Emanuel for 70 years, married to the late Josephine Whaley Bennett for 54 years, raising six children and getting each through college, all the while leading a local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club, serving his church and shouldering the unexpected burden as a civil rights standard-bearer in the wake of the Cannon Street All-Stars affair cements that status.
As the last of the All-Star coaches, his legacy lives on through those who come to bat after him.
Their kids are the ones who sat on those buses, boycotted those places, and sat at the counters, Holt said. So we must continue. The story must be told about the Lee Bennetts around America.
Cannon Street players became architects, school teachers, they served in the military and worked in the penal system, Holt continued. These were great human beings who didnt come away from bad experiences bitter, but came out being servants. Theyve lit the way for the dreams of Barack Obama, even though their dreams were taken away from them.
Im just proud and lucky to have been touched by a Lee Bennett.
Pinckney concluded Tuesdays eulogy by extending his baseball analogy to the dugout and the crowd in the stands:
We are wanting to live our life on the field so that somebody in the stands can say, that was a good man. Were going to want somebody to say, look how he ran those bases, look how he rounded second, look how he moved past third on the way home. Look how he walks off the field, look how he makes it to the dugout.
But you know, when you get to the dugout, youre not concerned about the peanut gallery. You want to see the coach and what you want to hear is Servant of God, well done.
Brother Bennett has made it back to the dugout. His time is over. He knew the rules of the game. He understood this day would come. May we who are yet to finish our game know that hes cheering us on, waiting for us to reach him in the dugout.