In his tribute to Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Henry Louis Gates reflects on an interview from a few years ago. Gates shares that what was remarkable was “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.” That tension of opposites, of all we can celebrate and all we can lament, is easy to read through without noticing its weight. You can read it as the work of a gifted writer but you can also read it as an important lesson about what it takes to be a force for good.
Lower the flags. Erect poignant monuments. But most of all, learn from Reverend Pinckney and the history he embodied that the work our civic leaders do is difficult. It requires seeing the worst among us while persisting in a belief that the American people want to do better and that they will.
Hearing the Voices of the Past
I became restless when hearing the short biographies for Senator Pinckney and the eight other community members in those first few days. The memorials were touching, of course. But too often this move marks a quiet finish to a tragic event. We shake our heads over the lives lost that day, sympathize with the family members coping with a sudden emptiness and then lose ourselves in contests over what it all means. More guns. Fewer guns. The flag has to go. Or it doesn’t. Take the Confederate statues too.
With the victims suitably memorialized, different interest groups compete to identify a larger tale of victimization where they they can relentlessly spin the day’s biggest story to their own ends. Memorials and crusades are too limited and too shallow to guide a people confronting a crisis. And when citizens set out to make war on one another, it’s a crisis.
In reconciling my restlessness, I remembered a deep and demanding voice that both resonated with the moment and echoed with the principles of the American people . There was a passage from Martin Luther King’s autobiography nagging me to be reconsidered. Reflecting on one of the earliest attempts on his life, King wrote about a climate of “hatred and bitterness” permeating the nation:
The pathetic aspect of the experience was not the injury to one individual… I saw its wider social significance. The lack of restraint upon violence in our society along with the defiance of law by men in high places cannot but result in an atmosphere which engenders desperate deeds.
King wanted us to know he had willingly stared into the morass of hatred and violence. He regularly weighed the threats to his family, his supporters and himself. King continued to do the work he believed would make the whole people of the United States a stronger people, a people who had integrity to accompany their well-professed principles. He could persist because he believed those principles held sway with the American people even if those same people sometimes seemed too comfortable with the distance between their principles and their practices.
The work of Clementa Pinckney was also this kind of work. Not the work of a martyr, necessarily. Difficult work. The work that shows us all what it takes to be a citizen committed to confronting our ills with a substantial force for good. He didn’t just meet an evil young man on that last night, but worked each day to confront the ugly truths that lurk among us.
King recognized the trouble the country faced even as he laid in a hospital bed healing from his own injury. Pinckney was also familiar with the kind of trouble that visited his church that night. It’s now up to the rest of us to address the racism and violence that hides in the distance between the principles we celebrate and the politics we practice.
Seeing Opportunities in Opposites
Welcoming guests to the Mother Emmanual AME church for the 2013 Civil Rights Ride, Reverend Pinckney asked to start his remarks with a prayer. As he prayed, he welcomed the spirits of the church’s founders and heroes that had come before. He also welcomed “all persons who come seeking to expand their horizons and working to learn more about what our country is made of and what makes us who we are as a people and a country.” He suggested that the time spent in the church should be seen as an “act of love” as well as an “act of righteous indignation in the face of injustice” and, in his later remarks, demonstrated how the church’s work aligned to the country’s work to promote freedom, equality and pursuit of happiness. This work, Pinckney said, meant that you “sometimes make noise,” that maybe you have to die, and that you sometimes have to march, struggle and be unpopular.
Think about the relationship embedded in Pinckney’s pairs:
Acs of love alongside righteous indignation.
Freedom, equality and pursuit of happiness that requires struggling, marching, and dying.
These combinations resonate with one of King’s sermons, “A Tough Mind and Tender Heart.” King organized the sermon around advice Jesus had given his disciples for confronting “cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.” Calling it a formula for action, King emphasized the advice to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
King observed that “life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.” He then catalogued the attributes of those “wise as serpents,” the tough minded: incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. He compared the tough mind that is “sharp and penetrating” to break through the “crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false” to the soft mind of the gullible whose minds are easily “invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices and false facts.” Soft minded men fear change, find security in the status quo and see the “greatest pain” in the “pain of a new idea.” In contrast, tough minded men “willingly engage in hard, solid thinking” despite an “almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.” King then blended this tough mindedness with the love, compassion and understanding of the tender hearted and saw non-violence as the combination of these two “strongly marked opposites” that could lead the American people toward the goal of freedom and justice.
Joining the Work of Change
If we listen to the history Pinckney carried with him, and recognize it as our history too, there is a nagging voice requiring us to be weary of soft-minded slogans. Citizens oriented to affect change like Pinckney refuse appeals to traditions that aim to interrupt the “hard, solid thinking” the moment has demanded of us.
Pinckney concluded his 2013 remarks by telling his guests that the people of Mother Emmanuel did not see their church as a museum but as a “place of change,” a place where they can work on the “hearts, minds and spirits of all people.” Let his own words remind us that the man, the place and the moment can not be allowed to stand as the end of the story. The hard work of good citizenship runs on the creative synthesis that King recognized and Pinckney embodied. That creative synthesis occurs in the moments when we as individuals confront the ugly truths lurking in dark corners with the resolve of an American people driven to give substance to the principles that animate us at our best.
In his eulogy for Pinckney, President Obama described him as a man who “believed in things not seen” and the attacker that night as someone who was blind. The creative synthesis of opposites that make our civic lives richer relies on an ability to believe in things not seen and to persevere in helping those who are blind to see what motivates us. We have to ask ourselves if arguing over the relevance of confederate soliders that dot the landscape in the South serves the cause of confronting blind hatred or if it instead distracts us with an easy answer.
As black churches continue to burn, we have an invitation to join the work of Reverend Pinckney and his congregation in Charleston. They have asked us to re-visit our ideas about who we are as a country, who we have been and what that means for us if we’re willing to think hard about moving our country forward.