Polly Sheppard stood on a stage at Marion Square on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and spoke about the night that changed her and Charleston forever: June 17, 2015.

She spoke of how a young, white man entered her church, Emanuel AME, and sat with her group for an hour for a Bible study. She spoke of how he took out a handgun and opened fire. 

Sheppard was along several speakers at the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity. The event featured several relatives of the church shooting victims, as well as speeches by clergy, local politicians, and performances by local musicians and poets. Folk singer and activist Joan Baez closed out the event with a short set.

During her speech, Sheppard focused on the importance of speaking out and of following words with action. She told the crowd that the shooter, Dylann Roof, said he spared her life so she could tell the story of what happened that night.

"He didn't let me live," she said. "God let me live. God granted me grace. We must end gun violence." 

Several of the speakers, including Emanuel's current pastor, the Rev. Eric Manning, called for universal background checks for gun purchases, closing the so-called Charleston Loophole that allowed Roof to purchase the handgun, and raising the minimum purchasing age to 21.

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The Rev. Dr. Jamal H. Bryant, the keynote speaker, talks to the crowd after inviting the families of the victims onto the stage during the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity on Saturday, June 23, 2018 in Marion Square. The event hosted a wide range of speaker, performers and musicians who all contributed to the overall message of peace, reform and unity. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, delivered a rousing speech that was greeted by cheers from the crowd.

He called out Christians who look the other way in the face of injustice and don't hold leaders accountable, saying "you are just an apostolic atheist."

"We came to Charleston to rattle the cage," Bryant said. "How do we walk (in) our faith when church is over?"

Melvin Graham, brother of victim Cynthia Hurd, spoke about his sister and holding elected officials accountable.

"We need to get together and say enough is enough," Graham said. "Let's not let our politicians get away with giving us empty rhetoric. It's a simple question: Are (they) willing to vote for common sense gun control."

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Rev. Claudia Lawton cheers on performer Daniel D. along side Mike Whack during the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity on Saturday, June 23, 2018 in Marion Square. The event hosted a wide range of speaker, performers and musicians who all contributed to the overall message of peace, reform and unity. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg also addressed the crowd and spoke about City Council's vote on Tuesday to adopt a resolution apologizing for the Holy City's role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The vote was a critical step on a journey of repentance, Tecklenburg said. 

"We did this not because it was requested but because it was owed," he said, before reading the document in its entirety.

Charleston City Councilman Harry Griffin, who helped to draft that resolution but later voted against it, also spoke at Saturday's rally.

He called on the crowd to work together, especially in setting examples for and educating youth.

Some of the speakers commented on calls to remove perceived symbols of racism such as monuments to the Confederacy and Marion Square's statute honoring former vice president John C. Calhoun, an advocate for race-based slavery.

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The John C. Calhoun monument stands behind a sign that says to take it down during the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity held at Marion Square Saturday morning, June 23, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Bree Newsome, the activist and filmmaker who removed the Confederate Battle Flag from outside the Statehouse grounds in Columbia in 2015, said doing so is about, "abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms."

She spoke about the crisis of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and ongoing shootings of young, black men by police.

"We're still confronting a dark past and an uncertain future, but the Holy Spirit is real," Newsome said. "We are the inheritors of the choices made by those who came before us. What choice will you make?"

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Activist Bree Newsome speaks during the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity held at Marion Square Saturday morning, June 23, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, spoke about the challenges in the Statehouse during the last legislative session.

Little time was allotted for a bill that would have extended the time for a firearm purchase background check from three to five days, among other provisions, Kimpson said. 

Senators, however, spent great deals of time debating over topics such as how many liquor licenses can be held by one person and how to dispose of chicken feces, he said.

Kimpson said he plans to reintroduce the bill, S.516, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Chauncey Gregory, R-Lancaster, during the next legislative session.

He also urged the crowd to vote for Democratic Party candidates during the midterm election in November.

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Rachel Grater and her son Joseph, 3, applaud Mr. Underrated after his performance which he dedicated to the Emanuel 9 during the Emanuel 9 Rally for Unity on Saturday, June 23, 2018 in Marion Square. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

For Camryn Singleton, daughter of Emanuel shooting victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, speaking to the crowd was no easy task. 

Singleton spoke of the pain she and her brothers still feel, about how their mother didn't get to see her graduate from high school or see her brother, Chris, play professional baseball.

While change comes slowly, it has to start somewhere, Singleton said. It's important that the community come together to change the state's and the nation's lax gun laws, she said.

"This is not easy for me but I feel obligated," Singleton said. "I refuse to let my mom die in vain. People don't care until it happens to them. Let's not wait that long."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.