Columbia Rep. Joseph Neal died unexpectedly February 14. He was 66.
Neal’s name may not have been a widely familiar one in the Charleston community, but his work as a minister and legislator in those respective communities was more than familiar. And the impact of his actions was even more widely felt.
The Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, Neal was the son of Choatte R., Sr. and LaVerne K. Neal. A 1972 graduate of Benedict College, Neal completed graduate studies at Colgate Divinity, Pittsburg Theological Seminary. Neal was elected to S.C. House Dist. 70 in 1992 serving areas of Richland and Sumter counties. He quickly became the representative of the people of South Carolina and gave voice to the struggles of the marginalized and oftentimes forgotten.
Charleston Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Columbia native, said Neal followed a family tradition. He eventually became pastor of his father’s church, and continued the legacy of community service that characterized his family. “His whole family was a powerful voice for the black community,” Kimpson said. He called Neal one of the most gifted orators in the legislature and pointed to Neal’s speech in the House of Representatives advocating removal of the Confederate Flag from the Statehouse grounds after the June 2015 murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Neal was a staunch supporter on workers and labor, he added.
Janet Tucker of the National Coordinating Committee, CCDS said, “From working with grassroots groups seeking to take the fight for Medicaid expansion to the State House all the way to shepherding the passage of his racial profiling legislation, Joe was tireless in his efforts to make the state of South Carolina a place of equity and fairness for all people. Joe was our guide to the oftentimes convoluted legislative process.”
Charleston Rep. David Mack said Neal was more than a colleague; Neal was one of his best friends. “People say great things about others at the time of their deaths and tend to exaggerate. But for Joe Neal that’s not true. While he was in the hospital he was working, because he always wanted to help people. They had to take his cell phone,” Mack said. He described Neal as a pastor who seamlessly knitted his roles as a clergyman and public servant.
Brett Bursey, executive Director of the S.C. Progressive Network said, “Reverend Joseph H. Neal, the founding Chairman of the SC Progressive Network in 1996, and bender of the moral arc of our universe was our chair for twelve years and continued to lead us as our Chair Emeritus until his death. While he represented lower Richland County in the legislature, he truly represented all who work and struggle for justice and equality. He was more than our hero; he was our friend and brother. Joe always provided wise council and taught us that love and compassion are powerful weapons.
Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard said Neal will be sorely missed. He was a remarkable, irreplaceable articulator for issues that spoke to the issues which affected the homeless and the underclasses. “He was a unifier,” Gilliard said.