By Paul V. DeMarco
July 30 was a remarkable day for Marion County. We dedicated the Amazing Grace Park, built to honor former state senator and minister Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in 2015 in the Emmanuel Nine massacre. Although Clementa (pronounced “Clemen-tay”) was not born in Marion County, his mother was raised here and he is buried in the family plot near the eastern edge of the county.
Our local state senator, Kent Williams, is Clementa’s cousin, and it has been a labor of love for him to shepherd the park into being.
The dedication gave full voice to the multiple facets of Clementa’s life – husband, father, citizen, politician, and as he described himself, “itinerant preacher.” To accommodate all those who came to pay tribute, including Governor McMaster, it was necessarily long (over 90 minutes) and South Carolina hot – the kind of heat that soaks the knot of your necktie. I came late and missed out on a seat in the shade; it took four bottles of water to sustain me.
The best speech was by his daughter, Eliana, who will soon matriculate at Temple University. She reminded us of the meaning of legacy with a quote from the musical Hamilton – “planting seeds in a garden you will never see” – and asked that when we visit the park, we shoulder her father’s legacy and “live and love as he would.”
Eliana’s framework makes the park an extension of her father’s life. I can’t think of a better way to remember him. Few of us are immune to the effects of memorials, monuments and symbols. We feel their power, we are uplifted (or sometimes offended) by their messages. My former favorite is the Lincoln Memorial, at once awe-inspiring and intimate.
But, for me, the park will leap ahead of Lincoln because it is personal and accessible. Although I never knew Clem, as his family calls him, his park will become a new part of my identity as a Marion resident. It is a pretty mile-long walk from my home, one that I expect to travel on a regular basis.
In 1993, when my wife and I moved to Marion, the county seat of Marion County, the economic base of the region – textiles and tobacco – was unraveling. The next two decades saw much stagnation and loss: plants closed like falling dominoes, tobacco warehouses were abandoned to slowly crumble, and long-time businesses were shuttered. It’s depressing to look at photos of the Main Streets of Marion and Mullins from mid-century, when shops were bustling, and compare them to today. But over the last five years or so, powered mostly by young entrepreneurs, our Main Streets are reviving. The park, which is two blocks off Marion’s Main Street and adjacent to the Marion County Museum, will be an important step in our city’s recovery.
As important as the economic boost will be the spiritual one, which can be appreciated whether or not one claims a faith. Rev. Johnny Coe, a presiding elder in the AME denomination of which Clem was a part, reminded us of the verses in Luke describing Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As the crowd chanted hosannas, some of the Pharisees urged Jesus to quiet them down. “’I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’”
Rev. Coe urged all the visitors to the park to keep Clem’s memory alive, to tell his story, so that the stones and the trees that surrounded us wouldn’t have to cry out instead.
Building a park is a risk, particularly in a county like Marion, whose future is in question. Locals hope that the charm of our shops, neighborhoods and countryside, the warmth of our people, and our proximity to the beach will produce a renaissance. Online shopping and remote work make rural living easier than ever. But most of the growth in our corner of the state has been in neighboring Horry County. The pull of urban amenities and schools may overwhelm the attractions that we offer.
Having lived the first thirty of my years in bigger places (Brooklyn, Wiesbaden, Charleston, Charlottesville and Columbia) I’m an ardent believer in small-town living. My 20-minute commute into Florence is the most relaxing I’ve ever had. The cost of living, especially home prices, is low. There is no night life to speak of, but I moved here with two young children and have never missed it. It’s been a lovely place to raise them.
The most inviting aspect of the park is its openness. There are no walls, no gate. We come to the park as vulnerable as Clem did the evening he welcomed Dylan Roof into his church. We come to enjoy the light and the grass and the flowers despite the knowledge that evil exists in the world and that, if we live our lives as openly and generously as Clem did, we could share his fate.
If we walk through the park in his shoes, we recognize the long line of martyrs he has joined, and we take up the baton of creating the beloved community. The park reminds us that there is more light in the world than darkness, and that no amount of hatred or violence can overcome it.
The park gets its name from Clem’s eulogy, delivered by President Obama at Mother Emmanuel, which he closed by singing a verse of the hymn. It was fitting that the dedication was closed with a version of “Amazing Grace” and a benediction by Bishop Michael Blue, a native son and dynamic preacher. He reminded us that the name “Clementa” is derived from a Latin root meaning “merciful.” “Let us go from this place,” he declared, “A park named ‘Grace’ for a man named ‘Mercy.’”
Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.