John Hickenlooper at Emanuel

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper listens as Anthony Thompson, right, recounts the night his wife was killed in the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church. Polly Sheppard, middle, survived the shooting. Hickenlooper visited the historic black church Saturday during a campaign trip to South Carolina as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. Caitlin Byrd/Staff

John Hickenlooper wanted to understand exactly what happened after.

After the shooting. After the funerals. After the trial.

Sitting in the center-most, front-row pew of Emanuel AME Church, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate leaned forward as Polly Sheppard recounted the night a white supremacist walked into the fellowship hall of this Charleston church and gunned down nine black parishioners — including her friend Myra Thompson — right in front of her.

"77 shots," Sheppard said, her voice soft and small even in the grand sanctuary. The Rev. Anthony Thompson, Myra's husband, sat beside her and shook his head.

"77 shots," Hickenlooper replied, incredulous and in a whisper. 

Hickenlooper, who served two terms as governor of Colorado, sat quietly for most of the 50-minute conversation Saturday with Thompson and Sheppard.

He let Thompson tell him how everything about June 17, 2015 — the day of the shooting — was strange. He tilted his head as Thompson explained that his usual rituals with his wife never happened that day, like kissing each other goodbye. 

He nodded when Thompson recounted how it took him a few minutes to fully understand what it meant when he heard the words, "Myra's gone." 

It was about 30 minutes into the dialogue before Hickenlooper told them both about his running for president. He is one of 17 candidates in the Democratic field.

Sheppard interrupted him and asked, "Are you doing something on gun control?"

It was Hickenlooper's first trip to South Carolina as a presidential candidate, and his first event in Charleston was this intimate conversation with Sheppard and Thompson while a handful of reporters and the church's pastor, the Rev. Eric Manning, listened a few feet away. 

Hickenlooper told them about how Colorado implemented universal background checks and put limits on high-capacity magazines.

After his meeting at Emanuel, Hickenlooper later issued a statement saying additional federal funding and long-term resources are needed for survivors of mass shootings, as well as their families and first-responders.

"While federal funding is currently provided to support survivors and victims’ families in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, the terrible recent losses make clear those resources need to be available long-term. We need to provide trauma-informed care and ongoing support for victims based on a clinical assessment of need," he said. 

During Hickenlooper's first term as governor, there was the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater, where a gunman opened fire killing 12 people and injuring more than 50 others.

He can still remember the exact number of funerals he attended. It was 32.

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.


"Part of the job is consoler-in-chief. It's a serious part of the job," Hickenlooper said, recounting the advice he received from then-President Barack Obama during in the aftermath of the shooting.

"You're listening, but not just with your ears. You're just trying to really be present. So every time I get to experience something like this," he said, his eyes scanning the church, "I feel that it's sharpening that ability to be present and to hear."

It was the start of a two-day swing through the Palmetto State, which included familiar stops for any political contender looking to officially introduce themselves to voters in this first-in-the-South primary state. He participated in a pair of informal meet-and-greets hosted by Democrats in Beaufort and Charleston counties.

But Hickenlooper's trip to this historic black church was also a key stop in a weekend itinerary that indicated the 67-year-old is seeking to more fully understand some of the nation's most painful chapters for African Americans.

On Friday, Hickenlooper called for a presidential apology for slavery while speaking at the National Action Network’s annual convention in New York. Later in the day, he traveled to Montgomery, Ala., where he visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which features a dedication to victims of lynchings. 

Hickenlooper, who was 12 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dismantled the segregationist laws of the Jim Crow South, said racial bias and injustice has simply taken different forms since the end of slavery.

"I've done this in all of my campaigns," he said. "I think it's important that you go to where people are, you meet them in their living rooms, or in their place of worship. Sometimes you come together in places where they've had to experience great sacrifice and loss."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.