Instead of letting grief or hate paralyze her, Jennifer Pinckney chose “to keep moving forward.”
That’s what she’s done in the almost two years since her husband, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, and eight others were killed by a gunman at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. It’s the same advice she gave Central State University’s 2017 graduating class Saturday at commencement.
She told the approximately 240 graduates of the historically black university that when the shooting began, she and her youngest daughter were nearby in the pastor’s study.
“Upon hearing those gun shots I locked the door and I grabbed my 6-year-old child and hid under a desk as bullets came through the walls,” Pinckney said.
But when adversity, failure and pain comes to your life – even through the violent loss of a loved one – you can’t cower behind sheltered walls for long, she said.
“Even though he is not here, can I just sit down and crawl in a corner? No. I’ve got to keep moving forward,” Pinckney said. “With each step that you’ve already taken, you’ve experienced many joys and many pains in life. There have been some good days, and some bad days. But in spite of what you have experienced over the course of your entire life, you must continue to step forward.”
When the processional of the university’s presidential cabinet, trustees, faculty, and graduates filled the floor of the Dayton Convention Center, President Cynthia Jackson-Hammond welcomed the crowd. It was the first spring graduation since 2014 that the institution wasn’t on fiscal watch by the Ohio Board of Regents.
The university, which celebrated its 130th anniversary in March, was notified by Ohio Chancellor John Carey last month that it had exceeded financial accountability benchmarks and had grown its reserves enough to be taken off the watch list.
“I want to thank the many families who entrusted the education of their sons and daughters to Central State University. We do not take this for granted,” Jackson-Hammond said. “The experiences that strengthen the character, the courage, the perseverance, the fortitude, the commitment and the willingness to learn is what has been accomplished today.”
After a moving rendition of “The Impossible Dream” by the Central State University Chorus, graduates strode across the stage shaking hands along the way toward their diplomas, many waving happily to friends and family members in the crowd.
A number decorated their mortar boards with Bible verses, messages and hopes for the future: “Usually I wear a crown but today this will do,” one said. Another gave a nod to the degree: “Finally done with this B.S.” One student’s cap included a quote from the late South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Pinckney quoted the same line in her commencement address, the first she has ever given, she said.
“This all amounts to another milestone you have reached and accomplished — another step forward in life,” Pinckney said. “And now you are about to take a leap of faith into the unknown.”
When her husband, also a South Carolina state senator, was killed along with others in the prayer group at Mother Emanuel, Pinckney said she realized the person who committed the crime — a self-proclaimed white supremacist — was filled with hatred.
Days after the shooting, former President Barack Obama eulogized Rev. Clementa Pinckney and sang the opening stanza of “Amazing Grace.” Three weeks after the June 17, 2015 shooting, the Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina State House was taken down for good by legislators.
Shaidra McGrew, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice, may be among the ones to mitigate hate crimes and stop future mass murderers.
The next challenge for McGrew is graduate school, but “ultimately I want to join the FBI and work in the behavior analysis unit,” said the 21-year-old from Sandusky.
Pinckney asked why people like the killer are angry and why they hate. She said she could have chosen to hate, but said her faith and the aspirations she and her husband set for their daughters keeps her “placing one foot in front of the other.”
“We are not born in this world like that. We’re not born hating and being angry with people,” Pinckney said. “But you have what it takes to make the world better, more equitable, more socially just, more fair and balanced for all Americans regardless of your political affiliation, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, social economic class, race, nationality, ethnicity and ideology. You have a voice.
“For me, I wish to see a world where hate is eliminated and love is amplified.”