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Racism. Violence. A slowly dying son. 5 years after the Emanuel massacre, echoes abound.

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Rembrance tshirt.jpg (copy)

Michael Better visits and speaks at Emanuel AME church during a memorial service held in honor of the life of George Floyd on Thursday June 4, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

For five years, they have mourned, then as now, as the country around them grappled with racism and violence.

Parents. Wives. Husbands. Sons. Daughters. They remain bound by the shared loss of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church when, on the sweltering night of June 17, 2015, an avowed white supremacist gunned down their loved ones.

For five years, the survivors and families of those who died have traversed uniquely uneven paths through immense grief. Many have found new meaning in different, inspiring ways. 

The Post and Courier caught up with several to see how they are mourning against the backdrop of nationwide protests and the coronavirus pandemic — and where they hope America goes from here.

The Parents

After a white North Charleston police officer killed a black motorist in 2015, Tyrone Sanders painted the man’s name onto his car window. It joined a growing list:

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Walter Scott.

Two months later, a white supremacist walked into Sanders' lifelong church, Emanuel AME in downtown Charleston. The man arrived with a mission to kill innocent black people at their Bible study. Sanders was at home. But his wife, son, aunt and little granddaughter were there.

His son and aunt died that night, five years ago today, along with those now bound in history as the Emanuel Nine.

Remembering the nine people who died in the Emanuel AME Church shooting

The nine who died in the Emanuel AME Church shooting are Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.

Through grief and rage, Sanders watched his hometown shoved from the comfort of its genteel renown onto the front lines of the nation's twin battlegrounds: one over police killings of black men, another over mass killings by white racists.

He washed the names off his car, suddenly afraid of drawing attention to their home.

Inside, his traumatized wife and grandchild lived in fear.

His wife, Felicia Sanders, had been sitting at a round table that hot June evening, her Bible opened before her, when the gunman began shooting. She'd grabbed her granddaughter, 11 years old, and yanked her beneath a table whispering, “play dead.”

She saved the child. But she couldn’t save the others.

As their son Tywanza died, stretched on the floor beside her, he called to his mother.

Tywanza was 26 with a wide, bright smile and dark eyes so full of life. He loved fashion and often wore baseball caps.

As the fifth anniversary approached, Felicia heard about a jogger in neighboring Georgia. White men had gunned down a 25-year-old black man. She stared at a picture of Ahmaud Arbery. She saw a wide, bright smile, and dark eyes so full of life. He wore a baseball cap.

Oh, God, another one, she thought.

A few weeks later, she heard about a black man in Minneapolis killed when a police officer kneeled onto his neck for almost nine minutes. She watched the video and saw a man stretched out on the ground.

She heard George Floyd call for his mother.

For five years now, Felicia has felt like she is dragging a heavy truck with every step, every minute, every day that passes. But when she looks back, she hasn’t moved forward at all. Every day, it seems, brings news of more violence, more black people dying. 

PTSD is an unpredictable thing, she said, like an invisible virus that lurks everywhere. Which is part of why she and Tyrone didn’t go to the protests that broke out after video of Floyd’s death surfaced. They didn't want to risk contracting COVID-19.

“And I can’t have rubber bullets coming after me,” Felicia said.

The morning after protests turned violent downtown, Felicia and Tyrone drove to see the damage. Felicia used to own a hair salon nearby and knows how hard it is for small businesses to succeed.

“I have a problem with people hurting people who didn’t hurt you,” she said. “I’m not speaking against protesting. You do what you have to do. But don’t target innocent people.”

She’s not one to march in protests. Felicia prefers to work behind the scenes and will be pushing voter turnout in November.

Tyrone doesn’t justify protesters’ violence. But he understands it.

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (right) greets Felicia Sanders (left) and Tyrone Sanders (center) during a 2019 town hall in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Growing up in Charleston during the '60s and '70s, he recalled police harassing his neighborhood with impunity. A week ago, he sat in his living room watching Floyd’s memorial on CNN. But he was distracted, livid that someone posted on social media that Dylann Roof, the racist who killed his son and aunt, should be released from prison.

Businesses, Tyrone said, must have no-tolerance policies for workers who espouse those sentiments, and police agencies must better screen their applicants for racist views.

“We got a lot of wolves in sheep's clothing," Felicia agreed.

As the protests continue, the couple faces their own challenges at home. Their granddaughter, the child who witnessed so much bloodshed, lives in a therapeutic facility out of state that costs about what a new house would, they estimate. Emanuel's leaders haven't shared with the child any of the millions in donations mourners sent after the shooting. 

Instead, the Sanderses find hope in the Tywanza Sanders Legacy Foundation, which focuses on education through college scholarships, a camp for aspiring entrepreneurs and a new ambassador program. Their daughter, Shirrene Goss, serves as president. 

“We are just trying to do everything we can to honor Tywanza and everything he stood for,” she said.

Next, they’re working on a program for schools across South Carolina that will carry forward Tywanza’s final words: “We mean you no harm.”

The Wife

Jennifer Pinckney’s first thought when she heard about George Floyd's death was for his family, thrust into the national spotlight, their loved one so suddenly and violently gone. She remembered when it was her.

Then, she wondered how often similar violence happened beyond the range of cellphone and video cameras. Her late husband, Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel and a state senator, had worked to require body cameras for police in South Carolina. 

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Jennifer Pinckney is helping to administer the Pinckney Scholars program — honoring her late husband the Rev. Clementa Pinckney — which sends black students from Charleston, Beaufort and Jasper counties to college with scholarships and support.  File/Staff

“It gets everyone riled up because it’s seen," she said. "But there are so many things that happen but go untalked about and don’t get the same kind of attention."

She thought of the world that awaits their young daughters.

Malana, now a sixth grader, was there that night five years ago, hiding with Pinckney as her father died on the other side of a thin wall. She remembers the 77 gunshots and the police officer who ferried her from beneath the secretary’s desk out to safety.

She’s the observer, the more reserved sister, more comfortable with people she knows.

Eliana, a rising high school senior, is looking ahead to college. With more of her father’s traits, she follows politics and has stepped out onto the public stage. She was supposed to speak at a function about empowering young girls, until it was canceled due to the coronavirus.

“People are starting to see her blossom and shine like her father. She can definitely hold her own," Pinckney said. 

Both girls normally stay busy with school, dance and friends. Pinckney, a librarian, makes sure of that. Then came the shutdown.

In the absence of so much busyness, she began going through Clementa’s stuff.

He had a lot of it. He loved science-fiction novels, comic books, books about history, politics and leadership. Books from his church office, books from his Senate office, all piled into his man cave in their house, until now, five years later.

“Books on top of books on top of books!" Pinckney laughed. “I’m trying to dig my way through.”

After his death, she focused on their daughters and her work, determined to keep their lives as normal as possible. A year later, her mother died.

Now, with quiet lingering from the shutdown, few distractions muffle the grief. When the sorting of Clementa's stuff becomes too emotional, she steps away. But only briefly.

“It’s time,” she said. “We’re hitting five years, and it’s time.”

The Husband

In January 2017, the Rev. Anthony Thompson stepped from the federal courthouse in Charleston and breathed the fresh air of relief. Nine black families had received justice.

Roof had just been sentenced to die for killing Thompson's wife, Myra, and eight others. The trial was over.

Survivors and victims’ loved ones hurried across Meeting Street toward the historic St. Michael's Church, past the graves of slave owners who once worshipped there and into its fellowship hall. Ministers wrapped them in prayer. The grieving lit candles.

Ten days ago, Thompson returned to St. Michael's. The church was reopening after 13 weeks of online services, and he would help welcome them back amid the convergence of two pandemics, one of physical sickness and another of the heart. 

Charleston's police chief arrived for the service. So did the mayor.

They came for many reasons, including Thompson’s role with the Clergy Advisory Council, which Mayor John Tecklenburg formed to help steer the city toward racial reconciliation after the Emanuel shooting.

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The Rev. Anthony Thompson along with the Rev. Al Zadig, rector of St. Michael's Church, pray along with the congregation at each corner of the Four Corners of Law Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Inside, everyone wore masks. Every other pew box sat empty. Worshipers were encouraged to hum, not sing, though few obeyed.

Rector Al Zadig began a "sermon duet" with Thompson, parsing a passage in Luke that discusses spreading the gospel to "set the oppressed free."

Each man wrapped his analysis in terms of breath and light, those metaphors for God’s creation and salvation — but also for George Floyd's death and protesters demanding change. Zadig recalled that, as he wrote his sermon, hundreds of young protesters outside his window on Broad Street shouted: “Can’t breathe! Can’t breathe!”

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The Rev. Anthony Thompson along with the Rev. Al Zadig, rector of St. Michael's Church, pray along with the congregation at each corner of the Four Corners of Law Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Bible, he knew, had much to say about breath.

“God stared into the face of chaos and brought order by breathing his Holy Spirit over the face of the Earth that brought the order we see outside today,” Zadig said. “My friends, without that breath, there is only destruction.”

The congregation sang “Amazing Grace." The two pastors then led a couple hundred people, nearly all of them white, outside to pray at each of the Four Corners of Law. They stopped at the county courthouse where Michael Slager was tried for killing Walter Scott, then at the federal courthouse where Roof was convicted.

Through a bullhorn, Thompson urged, “May we stand as one people!”

After the Emanuel shooting, Thompson wrote a book, “Called to Forgive,” about his words to Roof at the killer's bond hearing: “Take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it.” 

He and survivor Polly Sheppard, a close friend of Myra’s, often speak together to spread that message. 

“That’s where I’m at now when it comes to remembering, it’s about helping people,” he said.

The Daughter

Growing up in Charleston during the '60s and '70s, Sharon Risher dreamed of becoming the city’s first black woman mayor. 

Charleston still hasn’t had a black mayor. Or a woman.

She left four decades ago to attend a historically black college in Charlotte, then later became an AME minister and was working as a trauma chaplain when Roof killed her mother, Ethel Lance.

Risher long held passions for politics and social justice issues. Yet, she lacked something. Courage? Opportunity? A calling from God?

After the shooting, that changed.

“I believe God was telling me, ‘It’s your turn. I have prepared you. You’re ready to do this,’” Risher said. 

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The Rev. Sharon Risher of North Carolina hugs a friend during a special Bible study on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Risher's mother, Ethel Lance, was among the nine who died in the Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015. Sylvia Jarrus/Staff

The door to the activism opened with a letter. It came about a month after her mother’s funeral from a woman named Lucy McBath, whose son had been shot and killed three years earlier. McBath offered a shoulder of experience to the new and overwhelming sorrow that Risher faced. 

When Risher called, they mostly cried together. 

A week later, McBath reached out again. 

“I want to tell you about this organization I’m with,” she said. McBath, now a Georgia congresswoman, told her about the Everytown Survivor Network and helped her connect with its nationwide network pressing for gun law reforms.

“Everytown gave me that platform to reach millions of people,” Risher recalled.

She left her job to embark on this new ministry. Then, last year, she published a memoir, “For Such a Time as This.” Her calendar filled with speaking engagements. Until the coronavirus cleared it.

Yet, during the shutdown, Risher celebrated a silver lining in the cloud of uncertainty. Her daughter, Aja, married.

Ten days later, a white officer dug his knee into George Floyd's neck.  

Risher, who lives in Charlotte, figures America will grapple with the same issues in five more years, unless something big changes.

“If America says, ‘We messed up, and we’re sorry, and we’re going to try with everything we have to make this right,’ I think black people will be able to breathe,” she said. “I think there’s more people willing to try than not.”

She paused to think then, for a moment.

“I have to believe that.” 

The Son

Chris Singleton went to the Black Lives Matter march that Saturday, on May 30, before things got violent. The next week, Emanuel’s pastor reached out.

The Rev. Eric Manning asked if Singleton would join a prayer walk that would end at the church. He wanted young people to share their thoughts about race and violence. 

Singleton was 18 when his mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, died inside Emanuel. He hadn't returned often. He cannot quite explain why, but he’d only gone back to the place three times since. Yet, when Manning called, he agreed to go.

Standing there, before the grand white building, emotions pressed. He focused on the message of love he's worked to spread since June 17, 2015.

Back then, Singleton was an outfielder on Charleston Southern University’s baseball team. The next day, from the team’s diamond, he stood before microphones and captured the nation’s attention with that message. 

“Love is always stronger than hate,” he said. “If we just love the way my mom would, the hate won’t be anywhere close to what love is.”

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Chris Singleton, whose mother Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was one of nine killed at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2015, speaks outside the church during a memorial service held to honor the life of George Floyd Thursday June 4, 2020. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

He's since grown as a public speaker and gone to work for the Charleston RiverDogs. He married and welcomed a little boy, CJ, who is now 2 years old.

On the shooting's fifth anniversary, Singleton will hold that little boy in his arms. He will read him a story. 

The book, which Singleton wrote, will be released on June 17. It's titled “Different: A Story About Loving Your Neighbor.” In it, a young boy from Nigeria arrives at a classroom in Charleston, bearing an African name, cloaked in traditional clothing, eager to share his culture with his new classmates.

They make fun of him. 

But his teacher steps in to offer the warm assurance of his inherent value.

Her name is Sharonda.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

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