Emanuel AME shooting survivors have their say

Felicia Sanders (left) and Polly Sheppard, the only two adults at Emanuel AME Church's Bible study on June 17, 2015, who survived the mass shooting. Sanders testified against shooter Dylann Roof last week. Sheppard will testify this week. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Two survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting are in South Africa on a civil rights pilgrimage with the Washington-based Faith & Politics Institute that includes a stop at the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.

Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, along with 20 Kennedy family members and various civil rights figures, are on a 10-day trip to the country, which has grappled with its own history of racial oppression. The trip is being organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and The Faith & Politics Institute, which led a similar pilgrimage to South Africa in 2003, said Joan Mooney, the institute’s president and CEO.

“It’s intended to be a healing journey,” Mooney said.

The trip includes visiting the prison island where Mandela was incarcerated, meeting senior anti-apartheid veterans and touring Liliesleaf, once the heart of the country’s freedom movement. The group will stay mostly in Johannesburg but also visit Cape Town and Soweto, among others.

It all comes after a Faith & Politics Institute pilgrimage to Charleston in March, when Congress members, including John Lewis, who was severely beaten in the 1965 march from Selma, toured South Carolina. Their stops included the Orangeburg massacre site and Emanuel AME Church. While in Charleston, they met the two survivors, who have become symbols of forgiveness and faith after the racially motivated shooting last June.

Sheppard and Sanders both were in Emanuel’s fellowship hall for Bible study on June 17 when a visitor stood and began shooting, killing nine people. The gunman told Sheppard that he was sparing her life so she could share the horrors of what he’d done. Sanders survived by playing dead with her 11-year-old granddaughter even as her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders, was gunned down. Her elderly aunt Susie Jackson and cousin Ethel Lance also were killed.

When The Faith & Politics group was in Charleston, Sanders spoke about her son to a large group of lawmakers, civil rights leaders and local officials. She reminded them that Tywanza had tried to reason with the gunman by saying, “We mean you no harm.”

He didn’t say, “I mean you no harm.” He said, “We mean you no harm.”

“There’s nothing wrong with loving each other,” she implored. “It’s just skin color.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.