PHILADELPHIA — The television cameras and the eyes of thousands of delegates were trained on the Democratic National Convention stage, where Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, two survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting, stood.
Farther to the back of the Wells Fargo Arena, members of the South Carolina delegation were reeling with memories of the Charleston hate crime that claimed the lives of nine black parishioners last year, including church pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Sheppard and Sanders took the stage here Wednesday night to share their stories of losing their loved ones, the grace of forgiveness, and the urgent need to enact gun safety legislation now. They were introduced for their very brief remarks by the actress Angela Bassett, who recalled how the tragedy prompted the removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s Statehouse grounds.
It was at this moment, before Sheppard and Sanders stepped onto the stage, that state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter began to cry.
“As soon as they said, ‘the Confederate flag,’” the Orangeburg lawmaker said later, her face crumbling. “It just brought back all those memories.”
“The memories, a year ago, of what took place,” said state Rep. Harold Mitchell, seated beside her. “As soon as we started talking about the Confederate flag, the debate, what got us there. The hate, and knowing what it took for something like that tragedy to get us to come together and pull that flag down, something that drove that kid to that hatred. Just the whole culmination.”
After the shooting last summer, in the eyes of the nation, South Carolina became a symbol of strength, representing a very real promise of racial reconciliation in a state with a very deep and charged racial history. Taking down the Confederate flag was an historic act for which the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, won praise.
But the aftermath of the tragedy has been more personal and complicated, especially for the DNC delegation’s elected officials. They had to return to work without their friend. They had to face down the vitriol of opponents who wanted to keep the flag flying.
And they had to participate in the recent legislative session where no gun control legislation was enacted.
“I was the chairman of the Black Caucus. I was talking with all of law enforcement,” Mitchell said. “We were talking about all these crazy gun laws, open carry, guns in churches.”
Mitchell recalled being told by detractors, “The only way we’re gonna address this is a tragedy.”
“I thought about it, a year later, when this took place,” he said. “And in a year now, I’m here. So it’s kind of hard.”
For state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, who was elected to the seat that Pinckney had held, Sheppard’s and Sanders’ presence at the convention was an important moment.
“I think a lot of people in the arena looked up and they thought about it, and I really believe they felt for us, felt our spirit of forgiveness, and they want us to move forward,” Matthews said. “It’s not enough to remove the symbol of hate. We need to remove the means.”
She said the national conversation in the aftermath of the church shooting has been “totally lost. They concentrated on it for a minute or so, and then there was another horrific killing, as there have been many since the Charleston Nine, and we keep kicking the ball down the road. And not doing anything meaningful.”
From the risers, the South Carolina delegation held up a Palmetto State flag that has flown over the Statehouse, a flag provided by state Rep. Mary Tinkler, a guest of the S.C. delegation. They also held print-outs of the re-imagined state flag created in honor of the victims of the shooting: Nine doves configured in the shape of the crescent moon above the palmetto tree.
As the convention programming moved on to a live musical performance of “What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love,” some members of the delegation held hands and swayed side to side.
Afterwards, state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, usually ready with a soundbite, was at a loss for words.
“It was an emotional moment. This was an important thing,” Harrison said. “I’m proud of my party to showcase this.”