Public pays respects to slain Sen. Clementa Pinckney (+ video)

Sen. Clementa Pinckney Mourned

Sen. Clementa Pinckney Mourned by visitor at the State House Viewing on Wednesday.
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Sen. Clementa Pinckney Mourned by visitor at the State House Viewing on Wednesday.

Clementa Pinckney never will know how many people’s lives he touched.

Thousands – some strangers, some dear friends and colleagues – came to the State House Wednesday to pay respects to the slain state senator, his open casket placed in the State House a week after he was shot and killed, with eight others, while leading a Bible study at his Charleston church.

The line, two-hours long at times, included former governors, elected officials, state employees, family and friends, and people from South Carolina and elsewhere who came to know Pinckney only as they watched the Charleston church massacre – and the state’s response – unfold.

By the day’s end, about 4,000 visitors – some dressed for a funeral, others for summer – had made the slow moving journey from the State House grounds through its lobby, passing by the senator’s body.

The experience was moving even for strangers. Just moments after seeing the senator lying in state, some descended the Senate-side steps clutching tissues and patting their eyes.

“I’m hurt. I’m in pain again,” said Jeanetta Hutchinson of Mount Pleasant, struggling to speak.

“I feel the pain all over like it happened the first day, knowing what he could have done for us and knowing what he has done. But God has a purpose, and you wonder why. But I feel like that (Confederate) flag removal will make (it so) their death will be more positive.”

Pinckney’s casket was placed between the House and Senate, where the Democrat had held office since 1997, first as a state representative and, later, as a senator.

Pinckney, who was married with two daughters, started out in the State House as a legislative page. Later, at 23, he was the youngest African American to be elected to the Legislature at the time.

During the viewing, a black curtain hung over two doors, obscuring from view the State House’s north steps and grounds, where a Confederate flag flies.

That flag’s days of flying on the State House grounds appear numbered in the wake of last week’s church massacre.

Lawmakers agreed Tuesday to debate this summer whether to remove the flag, a symbol of South Carolina’s and the South’s racially divided past, after Pinckney and eight other African Americans were shot and killed by a stranger, who they had welcomed into their Bible study at historic Emanuel African Methodist Church.

Dylann Storm Roof, a white, 21-year-old Richland County resident, who espoused racist views has been charged with those slayings.

The flag also was a topic of conversation for some visitors waiting to enter the State House.

Marcus Reese of West Columbia brought a group of Brookland Baptist Church summer campers to see the senator and witness history in the making.

Some of the campers had hoped they would see the lowering of the flag – a topic some had learned about in school.

“I feel bad,” said Sedrick Haigler, 11, said of the shooting. “Rev. Pinckney died for no reason.”

The grieving extended down Main Street, lined by employees of businesses along the corridor, who watched as a horse-drawn caisson carried the slain Jasper County Democrat’s casket toward Gervais Street.

The caisson circled the State House’s western side — passing the Confederate flag — before stopping at the ground’s southern steps.

There, Gov. Nikki Haley, and state Senate and House members waited to receive Pinckney.

Members of the S.C. Highway Patrol’s honor guard carried Pinckney’s casket up a flight of steps and through a side door before 12:30 p.m. The crowd assembled broke its silence, singing a slow, woeful verse of “We Shall Overcome.”

‘Never been so proud of my state’

Kenya Howell of Columbia said she did not know Pinckney personally but felt like she did after learning about him through media reports. "Hearing him speak and watching him, and all the great things he's done. I'm just taken."

Howell said she has been watching 24-hour coverage of the tragedy but seeing Sen. Pinckney lying in state was "overwhelming. I don't even know how to comprehend it."

Betty and Willie Richardson drove from Swansea to show support for Pinckney's family. Betty Richardson was so upset she told her husband to talk to a reporter.

"We're just trying to figure out what people are thinking about," Willie Richardson said. "We live on this planet, and people can't seem to get along.

"This is so sad, people (are) losing their lives over something that you can’t change. You can't change a person or the way they think. Only God can do that."

But some visitors saw a silver lining in the tragic losses.

Vietnam veteran George Culler and fellow members of the S.C. Combat Veterans Group wore uniform shirts to the viewing.

Culler, a 67-year-old African American, said the tragedy and the state's response have changed the way he looks at South Carolina.

The state’s history of racism has been a source of bitterness for him, Culler said. But that seems to be changing. Instead of rioting after the slayings, South Carolinians have unified in peace and forgiveness.

"After watching the way the people came together, my heart was full,” Culler said, recalling sitting in his office and crying.

“I've never been so proud of my state."

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658

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