Published in Issue #6 | AUTUMN 2016

Wm . M i c h a e l G r u e n l o h

If you have ever had the opportunity to hear Senator Kimpson speak, you know there is no other way to begin an article about him than to write about how he talks. Marlon’s voice evokes Dr. Martin Luther King and something else that is unique to Marlon. His voice has a lyricism that inspires and a timbre that commands your attention. But his family members don’t talk like that. So where did the accent come from and what does it mean? I could write for days on this subject but there’s just too much else to say about his work in the South Carolina Senate to dwell on it. Suffice it to say, when Senator Kimpson talks, you just have to listen.

 I met Marlon 15 years ago when we were young associates at a big law firm. At the time we were as replaceable as coffee filters though we did not view ourselves as such. I remember Marlon looked me in the eye and confidently shook my hand. I didn’t know whether he spelled his name like ‘Marlon Brando’ or the fish so I just entered him into my phone as ‘the Governor.’ Given Senator Kimpson’s record in his short time as a legislator, that moniker may prove prophetic. 

During Senator Kimpson’s first term, his district was beset with tragedies. The shooting of Walter Scott and the massacre at Mother Emmanuel thrust him onto the world stage. If you turned on CNN in the days following those tragedies you likely heard Kimpson speaking about solutions and solidarity – not revolt and divisiveness like many of his peers. Senator Kimpson has led by example and helped our community heal while many other communities were erupting in violence. It would have been easy for him to talk to CNN about the centuries of mistreatment of African Americans in South Carolina. It would have been easy for him to spark the smoldering powder keg. Had he done so, it certainly would have made for better television ratings and may have earned him more votes. But instead, Senator Kimpson brought us together and I was so proud of him and my community. 

Senator Kimpson has also championed an impressive amount of meaningful, progressive legislation in his short time as a legislator. He co-wrote the bill equipping our police officers with body cameras and was a key voice in the fight to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. His trademark voice has been a loud and oftentimes lonely one on important issues like education and gun control. For example, take Senator Kimpson’s recent filibuster of the GOPs latest NRA-sponsored legislation.  He was badly outnumbered and never had a chance. A lesser man would run (and most of them did). But Senator Kimpson stayed on the Senate floor and fought. It reminded me of when the hopelessly outnumbered Jon Snow, single-handedly charged the army of Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. Why? Because Ramsay was an evil son of a bitch and it was the right thing to do, that’s why. Though Senator Kimpson did not win the battle on that legislation he did win important concessions from the GOP led Senate. Kimpson’s filibuster was a testament to the power of righteous dissent.

That’s the type of resolve we need in our Statehouse and I’m not surprised one bit that Senator Kimpson has shown such determination. It runs in his family. Marlon’s mother, Wilhelmina, was a Title 1 public school teacher and administrator for more than forty years. Marlon’s father, Milton Kimpson, worked as a sharecropper on the Marion Gressette Plantation in Calhoun County. In his youth, Mr. Kimpson’s claim to fame was the astounding amount of cotton he was able to pick in a week. Through hard work and determination, Mr. Kimpson rose from sharecropper to community leader, eventually serving in the cabinet of South Carolina Governor Dick Riley. Together, Milton and Wilhelmina Kimpson raised three boys; all of them are successful, family men guided by their faith. 

I occasionally have the opportunity to see Milton and Wilhelmina Kimpson. They are inseparable. When Milton Kimpson enters a room, invariably with Wilhelmina on his arm, he walks with a cane and is slightly bent over from years of hard work. Wilhelmina is soft-spoken and smiles often. I know that the Kimpsons have experienced and persevered through more struggle than I can imagine. But struggle is not what they convey when you meet them. Rather, Milton and Wilhelmina exude determination, success and great pride.  

Throughout his life, Senator Kimpson has channeled that same determination. He attended the prestigious Morehouse College but it was no cakewalk. Kimpson had to take his SATs twice before he was admitted. When he graduated from Morehouse he attended the University of South Carolina School of Law. That didn’t come easy either. He had to take the LSAT twice before he was admitted. Kimpson does not hide these facts. He is proud of them and rightfully so. When lesser men might have given up, Marlon used adversity to channel that Kimpson determination passed to him by his parents. He’s a grinder and that may be the most important thing for you to know about him. 

Today, Senator Kimpson lives here in Charleston with his beautiful wife and daughter. He seems like a man who has it all. That perception, more than anything, has been the Achilles heel at which his rivals have taken aim. They have questioned Senator Kimpson’s authenticity, labeling him a self-promoter and an outsider. One of his rivals, in an ironic bit of reverse racism even claimed that Marlon’s wife is a white woman (incidentally she’s not). How dare an African American man appear to be happy, healthy and wealthy? How dare Senator Kimpson display any of the trappings of his hard won success? Do they know, I wonder, that Senator Kimpson often works late into the night so that he is prepared to represent both his continuants and his clients? Do they know, I wonder, that Marion Gressette, the name that adorns the State Office building in which Senator Kimpson works is the same name of the plantation on which his father toiled?

I had no idea what type of man Marlon would become when I first met him 15 years ago, and don’t know what he’ll do in the next 15 years. But I’m proud that Senator Kimpson is my representative in the Senate, and I’m even more proud that he is my friend. I think I’ll keep him listed in my cell-phone as ‘the Governor’ a little while longer.