Greenville County ordered to permit college students to register to vote

The SC Progressive Network‘s two-year campaign to recruit Greenville County college students to file suit against the county election board ended today with a clear victory.

Circuit Judge Robin Stilwell issued an order at 4pm requiring the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration to “immediately and temporarily cease and desist from requiring the additional questionnaire from on-campus residents of Greenville County colleges.”

Judge Stilwell concluded that if the requested relief was denied “the Plaintiffs (Ben) Longnecker and (Katherine) West will not be afforded the privilege of exercising their constitutional rights in the upcoming election. That opportunity will be forever lost.”

furman_caseFurman student and plaintiff Sulaiman Ahmad, Rev. Carol Hill, Network Director Brett Bursey, and Greenville NAACP President Rev. J.M. Flemming at the Greenville Court House before the Oct. 6 hearing.

The lawsuit also prompted the State Election Commission (SEC) to issue its first “cease and desist” order telling a county board what to do since South Carolina’s voting laws were codified in the 1895 constitution that disenfranchised blacks. “We anticipate that the SEC will force Greenville County to permanently end this practice,” said Network Director Brett Bursey, “and that it will use its new authority to force counties to follow standard procedures that will make the voting process in South Carolina less confusing and more equitable.”

Building community, gathering power – one activist at a time

Robert Burgess
SC Progressive Network Faith Liaison

On a cloudy mid-June day, I stepped off of a short flight from Atlanta and into the jazz capital of the world. Unsure of which shuttle ran from the airport to Loyola University, I decided to stop by the service desk. The concierge was a nice middle-aged woman who offered pamphlets full of standard attractions and confirmed where I might find our shuttle. After a few pleasant exchanges about her beloved city, she offered up intel on festivals, parades and local happenings with a wink and smile. Her charm and friendliness would set the tone for my first excursion to New Orleans.

Over the next two days, SC Progressive Network Executive Director Brett Bursey, fellow organizer Daniel Deweese, and I would participate in the third annual SOLVE conference. The Southern Leadership for Voter Engagement conference is a multi-generational and multi-racial leadership group for increased civic participation in the South. The mission: collaborate to create innovative community-level initiatives to enhance voting access, and advocate for voting rights. This year’s theme was Strong, Persistent, and Determined Action: SOLVE after Shelby, a reference to the Supreme Court Case, Shelby County v. Holder, which ultimately struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional.

13435573_10104105429667957_7320718878067257072_n(From left) Robert Burgess, Brett Bursey, and Daniel Deweese in New Orleans

Brett, being the prudent strategist that he is, made our assignments very clear. Go forth and learn. Not just the raw data analysis and gerrymandering statistics that comes from actively listening to the panelist, but the type of learning that can only come from conversations in the hallway. From handshakes and a smile. Getting to know these prolific individuals and how they operate on a personal level. I imagine Brett already knew who was who among the packed headline of politicians, attorneys, national organization figureheads and the like, however he wanted us to engage and build our own networks. Friendships that may last beyond a two-day event and into the long future of our shared struggle.

Chief among them was Bryan Perlmutter. He was a calm, unassuming young man wearing a shirt that simply said, “People over money”. There were a few others wearing this black t-shirt with bold lettering circled around him. I would come to find through a series of candid conversations that Mr. Perlmutter had already done more good for NC than most of their leaders had done their entire career. Some of his accolades include building coalitions to oppose budget cuts and tuition hikes as a student at NC State, co-founding the NC Student Power Union, working as the Communications and Development Director for the Youth Organizing Institute, acting as the Development Chair for the Southern Vision Alliance and most notably, Founder and Executive Director of Ignite NC. His arrest in 2013 planted the seeds for what would become the Moral Monday movement which has now become a national campaign. We met a clear-eyed, young (24) impressive man who was nice enough to share tactics with two organizers from SC.

After spending time with a myriad of speakers at the SOLVE conference and enjoying a night out with Ignite NC, I returned home. Fatigued, yet full of hope. I thought, “If more organizations joined to confront issues, maybe there would be a light at the end of the tunnel for my kids.” I also thought about Bryan and his cadre of fired-up activists tackling heavy weighted issues like voter suppression and the HB2 bill. He was fearless, unashamed and ready to speak truth to power.

In the days following, I was encouraged by Brett to nominate him for the Mario Savio Young Activist award. This national award, which carries a cash prize of $6,000, is presented each year to a young person (or persons) with a deep commitment to human rights and social justice and a proven ability to transform this commitment into effective action. Bryan was an ideal candidate. Of course, Brett found it delightful that I obliged. The application process was rigorous and detailed, but my resolve remained intact. There was no question that he and his work were worth supporting. A small token of appreciation and an olive branch for the future.

Yesterday, three months after the application was received, Bryan called to tell me that he won the award and would be flying to California to accept. He was deeply grateful and I told him that he was beyond deserving. Our chat didn’t last very long. He was tied up bringing a new hire up to speed, organizing new student fellowships and working to unify Charlotte in the wake of recent extrajudicial killings. The conversation ended with a tentative reunion scheduled for the New Legacy Project’s Subversive Art Festival Extravaganza Oct. 8.

I don’t expect him to show up but it would be nice to catch up with a new, old friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal courts find photo ID laws unconstitutional

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The argument the SC Progressive Network has been making about South Carolina’s photo ID law being a Republican plan to suppress the black vote has been taken up by new champions: federal judges across the country!

The 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals that struck down the North Carolina photo ID law on July 29 ruled “the demonstrated ingenuity of state and local governments in hobbling minority voting power… imposes cures for problems that didn’t exist.”

Most recently, the three-judge appeals court in Richmond ruled that North Carolina’s photo ID law was unconstitutional. It also voided new NC laws that cut early voting, ended same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.

Although North Carolina’s “reasonable impediment” ballot for registered voters without a photo ID was modeled after the SC photo ID law, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Anita Earls advised that the ruling doesn’t automatically apply to South Carolina. Earls has 20 years of experience as a top attorney in the Voting Rights Section of the US Dept. of Justice. The SCEJ has been advising the Network on voting rights laws, and was a party to the North Carolina case.

Responding to the Network’s inquiry about the ruling’s impact on South Carolina, Earls said, “We think that there are some important distinctions among reasonable impediment schemes, and even though the North Carolina provisions were modeled on the South Carolina law, there is no immediate and automatic invalidation of South Carolina’s photo ID requirement as a result of this decision.”

Earls said that what won the fight in North Carolina was the difficulty in getting the free photo ID there. The operation was poorly run by the state DMV, rather than by each county board of elections, as in South Carolina. Opponents of the photo ID law in North Carolina were able to prove that people had a hard time getting the free ID and that many of the impediment ballots were not counted as required by law.

The task before opponents of the South Carolina photo ID law is to gather the data on the impact of the law on the 202,484 registered SC voters who the State Election Commission identified in 2012 as not having a DMV photo ID.

Network Director Brett Bursey recently requested the State Election Commission to provide a tally of how many of the provisional ballots cast in the 2014 election were for lack of photo ID, and how many of those impediment ballots were rejected. “I was told that the state Election Commission did not gather those numbers and I would have to go to each of the 46 counties for that information,” Bursey said. “Without that data, we can’t determine if our photo ID law had the same impact on black voters as it did in North Carolina.”

The Network will be seeking the information needed to determine the law’s impact.

Sheriff Leon Lott says Network’s racial profiling project boosts accountability

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Richland County Sheriff Lott shared the progress and challenges on racial profiling in South Carolina at the Network’s spring strategy conference in Columbia.

Brett Bursey, executive director of the SC Progressive Network: Sheriff Lott has been a friend of the people for quite some time now. He participated with Joe Neal and I in television work about racial profiling databases in 2001. And Richland County has taken the lead on that. And the sheriff has taken a little bit of time off from campaigning for his, how many terms?

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott: Sixth term.

Bursey: For his sixth term, so he’s obviously doing a good job as Richland County sheriff. So let’s hear it for Leon Lott. (applause)

Sheriff Lott: Thank you.

The problem with all that data is nobody really looks at it, half the agencies don’t turn it in, and it’s not enough data. Back in ’99 and 2000 we were looking at racial profiling and being transparent and creating a citizens advisory council. We required that every deputy, when they stop somebody, they have to call in the stop, location where they stopped them, and why they stopped them. And when they get through with the stop, we have to get the age, race and what they did.

So we have the whole picture, and then our dispatcher takes that and – through the computers we’ve got – we have each officer’s name with the data. And we have somebody look at it; it doesn’t sit there like the state’s data. We have supervisors look at it, and we check our officers. Is this officer working in a Latino community? Who is he stopping? Is he in a white community? Is he in an African -American community? We have to look at what community they work in to determine who’s being stopped. Then you have to look and see are they just stopping one race? One sex?

We actually identified an officer who was stopping Hispanic females, and we saw that there was a problem. So we started pulling his tapes and we found out he was profiling Hispanic females, and actually had him on tape assaulting one. We didn’t just terminate him, we arrested him.

What we were doing in 1999 and 2000 had been so successful with us—Rep. Joe Neal and Brett [Bursey] said we need to do statewide. They started off modeling after what we were doing, but by the time [the bill] got passed it was so watered-down it was basically ineffective. One of the most blatant things that made it ineffective was that people weren’t forced to do it. We had so many agencies that just weren’t turning in the information. Why isn’t there some penalty for not doing it? There wasn’t.

So the law really hasn’t been effective. Rep. Joe Neal, a Richland County representative and one of my close friends, we started back again trying to do something to require agencies to do it. And to give us more information. If you’re just doing it for people who get warning tickets, what about people who are stopped and don’t get a warning ticket? Or that you give an actual ticket to? Where’s the data on them?

So we’re not getting the data on everyone who’s stopped, and that’s what we need-not just a snapshot of a few people who are stopped, but everybody that you stop-and then have it examined. You have to look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And when you do that, you’re able to determine if you have racial profiling. That is the only way you’re going to be able to stop it.

We go through the education part of it with our deputies. If they know that we’re not going to tolerate anything like that and that you will be arrested and you will be terminated if they do stuff like that, then they have it in their mind that they can’t do it. But if an agency allows it or doesn’t check, then there’s going to be some officers that are actually going to do it. So you have to start at the agency’s head—the ones who put the word out that this is not going to be tolerated in our agencies.

One of the things we did to help do that was our citizen’s advisory council—27 citizens who represent the diverse community we have in Richland County. We’ve had it for 16 years. They come in and look at all of our internal affairs complaints, all the police shootings, all our policies and procedures, they look at every single thing we do. They have a voice in the sheriff’s department, which is the voice of the citizens of Richland County.

I can’t go around and talk to all 500,000 residents of Richland County, but I can talk to their representatives who represent their community. They see what we do in real live time, not six months later, 10 months, not one year later, but they see it as it happens. If we have a shooting, they’re getting information as soon as I’m getting information so they can take it back to their communities and let communities know what actually happened. They sit on our hiring board.

When you go through to be a deputy, the last thing you do is go before an interview board. There’s five deputies and two representatives from the citizens advisory board, and each one has an equal vote. We want the citizens to see everything we do. The agencies that hide the information are the agencies that are doing something wrong. If you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t be open and honest and transparent with every single thing that we do. That’s what we do at Richland County, and I get criticized for it. I get criticized for it by other sheriffs and other chiefs who don’t believe in it. They don’t believe in collecting data on racial profiling. They don’t believe in having a citizen’s advisory council. They’re totally against it.

Sen. [Marlon] Kimpson from Charleston County and Sen. John Scott from Richland County introduced two bills in the current session. One bill was for SLED to have a citizens advisory council. The other bill was for agencies over 300,000 to have a citizen’s advisory council. That got shot down immediately by the Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement associations because the sheriffs and chiefs said, “We don’t want the citizens to have oversight of what we’re doing.”

That to me is absolutely ludicrous and crazy, and I’m ostracized by my fellow sheriffs because I believe in that. I ain’t changing. I’m not.

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Three years ago, I was elected to be president of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, and I was to take office this July, so I would have been president in ’15 and ’16. After Sen. Kimpson introduced the bill on citizen’s advisory councils, the Sheriff’s Association had a special meeting where they voted me out. They didn’t believe in what I was doing and what I was saying. So I’m not going to be the president, so I can’t help you out on there. But I am going to be your voice and will speak out loud and clear and publicly that we need to do something about the problem in our communities with our law enforcement doing the wrong thing. And we need the citizens to help us police the police. That’s what we need to do. And when we do the right thing, we don’t have to worry about it. And by working together, we can do that.

The racial profiling bill is not going to go anywhere this year. Hopefully by next year we will be able to strengthen it and make it effective like it needs to be. But what you’re doing [through the Network’s racial profiling project] is a start, because if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have anything. We’re doing what we’re doing because it’s the right thing to do. But without you, we weren’t going to Spartanburg, we weren’t going to Greenville, we weren’t going to these other agencies and asking them the hard questions.

So keep doing what you’re doing, because the good cops don’t mind it one bit. Thank you.

•••

This May 14 speech was transcribed by SC Progressive Network Member Liaison Kyle Criminger and has been edited for length.

As SC prepares to replace aging voting machines, the SC Progressive Network advocates for low-tech devices

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SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey addressed the Joint Legislative Committee on Voting System Research on Nov. 10 at a meeting to talk about replacing the state’s aging voting machines. (His testimony begins at 2:13 in this clip.)

The five Senators and five House members on the committee invited State Election Commission Director Marci Andino to make a presentation about the acquisition of new voting machines. She was hired in 2003, not long before she spent the state’s $34 million federal grant to buy new voting machines. Ours was the first state to spend its Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money that was allocated after the 2000 “hanging chad” drama that resulted in the George Bush presidency.

In 2003, the Network testified before the SEC board (Andino’s bosses) while its members deliberated whether to buy more than 10,000 of the machines at $3,000 apiece. We presented expert witnesses who testified that the proposed machines were not certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission, that the software to run them is secret, and the devices don’t produce a voter-verifiable paper record necessary for a recount.

Against that advice, South Carolina bought the machines, and Andino remains a loyal consumer of the paperless, secret-software, touch-screen devices we have been using since 2004.

Andino told the committee that she was going ahead with writing the Request for Proposals for the new voting system, and expected to have the bid let by the end of the year. Committee Chair Sen. Ronnie Cromer (R-Lexington) pointed out that the committee wouldn’t have their report on what kind of system SC should buy until after the first of the year.

Andino told the committee that the state procurement code put her in charge of writing specifications for investing $40 million in a new voting system. Murmurs in the audience suggested that she might regret telling legislators that they couldn’t tell her what to do.

Comments from legislators – especially the Republicans – supported the type of system that the Network has for years been advocating: a publicly owned system that doesn’t rely on secret codes for security, but relies on a voter-verified paper ballot. It is a simple system that can use an off-the-shelf computer or tablet to run software that lets the voter touch (or talk) to the screen and print a paper ballot. The voter reviews the ballot to verify that it’s marked correctly, then deposits the ballot in a scanner that counts the vote before the voter leaves the precinct.

This low-tech system will cost about half of what Andino is prepared to spend on a proprietary one, and it doesn’t require specially trained company technicians. The state could teach students in our 17 tech schools to maintain our publicly owned system.

The Network will be educating the public and our members on this issue, and asking them to lobby their legislators to purchase a more transparent, reliable and fiscally sound voting system.

Inaugural class graduates from the Network’s Modjeska Simkins School

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The students who graduated Aug. 24 from the Modjeska School’s summer session were a diverse mix: gay and straight, retired and collegiate, blue-collar, union and professional, black, Latino and white. The youngest was 2nd-grader Rose Duncan, daughter of guest lecturer Graham Duncan, and the eldest student was Eunice “Tootsie” Holland, who will turn 84 in December.

What they shared was an intense, three-month session that covered a South Carolina people’s history. The massacre at the Emanuel Church in Charleston took place just two days after we talked in class about Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave rebellion. It was Vesey’s church that was again the chosen target of a violent racist attack. We added an extra class to talk about the tragedy, Sen. Clementa Pinckney – an ally of the SC Progressive Network – and the political maneuvering around the Confederate flag. Pressure from GOP candidates on the campaign trail forced Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the flag to come down. It was a stunning example to see how history is made, and remade.

The summer session covered South Carolina history as well as our own, teaching how the Network was created 19 years ago, and tracing its genealogy from the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW). Students also learned basic civics and organizing strategies. “You’re never too old to learn new things,” said Andy Sidden, pastor at Garden of Grace Church, “and, boy, did I!”

The school is a work in progress. “It was a privilege to have been a guinea pig for the noble experiment,” said Kyle Criminger. “We learned so much, so many stories that I had never heard. And it put the popular movement in historical context, and clarified our strategy and tactics.”

Course material will be revisited, repackaged, culled, expanded and posted to be accessible and user-friendly for students and the public. We are in the process of recording oral histories on key topics by South Carolina social justice movers and shakers, as well as uploading clips from the summer classes to share on the web site. Our goal is to see that the Modjeska School’s organizer training gets spread across the state by training up a corps of teachers and by also having on-line classes.

Students will carry what they’ve learned into the real world, starting immediately. They have signed up for at least one Network project, and will be working with other activists to expand and create Network initiatives. They are:

  • Medicaid expansion. South Caorlina is on track to privatize Medicaid funding, a really bad idea that’s driven by for-profit health care and anti-government ideologues. We will update our campaign for this new reality in 2016.
  • Racial profiling. Using the toolkit the Network created years ago, with a law we wrote to support it, we will teach community activists how to hold law enforcement accountable for its practices during traffic stops.
  • Missing Voter Project. The Network will continue its work on voting rights and targeting under-served communities to engage them and register them to vote.
  • Clean elections. Also called publicly financed, or voter-owned elections, this is the reform that can make all other reform possible. We will continue the work that Sen. Clementa Pinckney held dear, reducing the influence of money in politics.

Duncan said, “These last three months with the school have been incredible, and I feel fortunate and honored to have been included in helping develop a curriculum for the classes. Seeing a group of people come together to discuss how we can use lessons from South Carolina history to inform and influence our current efforts to organize in an attempt to enact more progressive policies gives me real hope for the future.”

Thank you to guest teachers Graham Duncan, Dr. Ed Madden, Dr. Hoyt Wheeler, Dr. Tom Terrill, Kevin Gray, Rep. Joseph Neal, and Meeghan Kane.

And congratulations to the graduates!

See more photos in our class album.

For more about the school, call 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

Don’t sanitize history; learn from it

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The monument to racist Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman on the State House grounds.

Since the Confederate flag has come down, there is some public sentiment that the state now must remove monuments erected to racist state leaders. The SC Progressive Network does not subscribe to that idea. Network Director Brett Bursey issued this statement:

“The tragedy in Charleston is a teachable moment, and a chance to talk honestly about the racist nature of our heritage. Removing monuments to white supremacists like Calhoun, Hampton, Simms or Tillman will not change the past, nor will it help future generations understand and change the institutionalized racism they inherit.

White supremacy is deeply woven into our history. It was, in fact, at the core of the state and nation’s founding. We support telling the truth about our former ‘heroes’ with additional plaques that explain their role in using race and class oppression to retain wealth and power.

If Ben Tillman is erased from our present history, we will not fully understand why and how our state ranks so consistently low on quality of life charts.”

The Network is in the process of creating a walking tour of the State House grounds, a people’s guide to its monuments. The project will launch this fall.

Brett Bursey began his life-long career as a progressive activist in 1968 as the SC State Traveler for the Southern Student Organizing Committee. He founded the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW) in 1975. GROW organized the SC Progressive Network in 1995.

A look back at three weeks that changed South Carolina

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The racially motivated tragedy in Charleston’s Emanuel Church ignited a renewed resolve to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s State House grounds, something the SC Progressive Network committed to 20 years ago at its founding conference. At a rally organized just days after the murders, Network Director Brett Bursey addressed the crowd of nearly two thousand, asking the assembled to become part of a social movement.

As lawmakers in special session deliberated the fate of the flag in the SC State House, citizens gathered outside in the blistering heat to demand action. The handful of Confederate supporters there got an earful.

On July 4, hundreds gathered to rally for the third time to demand lawmakers remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Kevin Gray spoke for the SC Progressive Network.

“We have grieved. Now we must get back to work.”

Message from SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey:

After one of the most painful weeks in our state’s Jim Crow history, the SC Progressive Network is stepping away from the microphone and media circus to refocus our energy on the long-term struggle ahead. We have grieved. Now we must get back to work.

We are committed to insuring that the struggle for equality and democracy continues beyond the funerals and the flag controversy.

6Kevin Alexander Gray speaks on behalf of the Progressive Network at the State House on June 23.

It appears that the flag will be coming down before the end of the current special session. The state Senate convenes at 10am July 6, and will take up the bill to move the flag off the grounds as it awaits House action on the budget. The House goes into session at 1pm July 6, and will take up vetoes and the budget while awaiting the Senate bill to remove the flag.

Our allies in the legislature have counted the votes and believe there is the necessary two-third to move the flag.

That said, a continued citizen presence and insistence on removing the flag will facilitate getting the job done promptly. But be mindful that grandstanding on the flag’s removal, especially by national figures, isn’t helpful. In the interest of using the occasion to fend off the fundamentalists and bring more rational thought to our legislature, we need to recognize that conservative legislators like Senators Tom Davis and Paul Thurmond are voting to bring the flag down.

Then we work on getting them – and others in power – to address the larger, more insidious problem of systemic racism in South Carolina.

On July 4, there will be a “Unity and Healing” gathering at the State House that is being billed as a family event with music and speakers starting at 4:30pm.

The Network will have a table and be talking to those in attendance about the work yet to be done, and inviting them to get involved in the revolution of social values to which we remain committed.

Network members who want to help spread the message should come by the Network’s tent and pick up some invitations to distribute to crowd.

Questions? Call our office at 803-808-3384.

Remembering Sen. Clementa Pinckney

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Sen. Clementa Pinckney testifies at a legislative committee hearing on the SC Progressive Network’s bill calling for clean elections.

Brett Bursey
SC Progressive Network Director

I first met Clementa Pinckney when he was elected to represent Lowcountry counties in 1997. He was 24 years old and powerfully earnest in a humble way. I knew the name, having grown up in Beaufort with white Pinckneys who were ever-mindful of their famous namesake’s role in establishing this state and nation. A standing joke in Beaufort was “the Rutledges speak to the Pinckenys and the Pinckneys speak only to God.”

Clementa smiled at my mention of the white side of his family, noting that they got the money and land, but are no closer to God than his side of the family.

Most of his friends called him Clem. But I loved the name his mother Theopia gave him, and always used it. I had several occasions to spend time with his wife Jennifer and their two daughters. The girls are precious, precocious and polite reflections of their father. They will always miss him, but will always remember, too, the president of the United States eulogizing him, as well as the outpouring of grief and love across our state.

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Sen. Pinckney speaks at a clean elections press conference at the State House.

Clementa was an active member of the SC Progressive Network, and championed legislation we promoted. His sponsorship and articulate defense of our clean elections bill to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics was captured on an SCETV clip here.

Clementa’s calm nature in spite of his demanding schedule was humbling. While he was a legislator, pastoring a church on the coast and being a great dad back home in Ridgeland, he found time to get a masters degree in Public Administration from USC, then take classes at the Lutheran Seminary.

When he was transferred from a small AME church in Beaufort County to one in Charleston, he didn’t mention that he was the new pastor of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church. The church, one of the oldest black congregations in the nation, has a history that reflects the violence of our state’s racist heritage. Denmark Vesey, was one of the founders of the church in 1818 and the leader of a Charleston slave rebellion in 1822. Vesey and 34 others were hung for their role in the rebellion in which no white people were injured. The church was burned during the Vesey trial, and in 1834 the state outlawed all black churches.

A great new leader has been taken from us by an old and insidious enemy. Let it serve to remind us of the long road we’re traveling for racial justice, and deepen our resolve to stay the course.

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Pinckney speaks to members of the SC Progressive Network at Penn Center.