Charleston shooting survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard brought the crowd to its feet at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday evening with emotional speeches in support of the gun control legislation that they say could have prevented the tragedy.
“We mean you no harm,” Sanders began her address. These were the last words of her 26-year-old son Tywanza, who died trying to shield his 89-year old great-aunt from the shooter’s gunfire at a weekly Bible study.
Together, we can fight for that change. Together, we can heal. Together we can love.
Polly Sheppard, Charleston survivor
“Two days later I forgave the shooter that murdered him,” she said. “Hate destroys those who harbor it. I refuse to let hate destroy me.”
She and Sheppard were the only adult survivors of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year. Nine black parishioners lost their lives during a shooting rampage by Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist.
“No one should feel how we feel, how we suffered,” she said.
As she spoke, visibly emotional delegates from South Carolina on the convention floor held up state flags and raised their fists in the air, repeatedly chanting “Enough!” in support of gun control laws.
“How was he able to purchase the gun that killed so many?” Sanders asked. She said that after the shooting, Clinton supported them in calling for the closing of the so-called Charleston loophole, which allowed Roof to purchase a gun despite a failed background check.
Sheppard said that the shooters in Charleston, Orlando and Dallas had “hate in their hearts.”
“I chose love. And this election I chose Hillary Clinton,” she said to applause. “Hillary was in South Carolina the day before the shooting and in the days that followed, she talked about the hatred in our nation, the racism, the adjustment.”
S.C. state Rep. John King said their speeches were “heart-wrenching.”
Since the massacre at Charleston church, more lives have been destroyed by gun violence. And hatred still threatens to tear us apart.
Angela Bassett, actress and director
“It was a speech that I know resonated with everyone in this room," he said, adding that he hopes it will result in political action on gun control.
"I believe it will, and especially in South Carolina," he said.
S.C. state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews said the speech was especially moving considering what the survivors had been through.
"It is amazing that, through the horrendous tragedy, that they are somehow still able to stand and say, 'We forgive,’” she said. “We wanted to make sure that we let them know that South Carolina and Charleston stand with them, and we forgive. But we want something done with guns in the United States."
The two survivors of the shooting were introduced by actress Angela Bassett, who read out the names of the nine victims as their photographs were shown on the convention hall screens.
“We say their names, but that is not enough is it?” she asked. “After Charleston, Hillary Clinton challenged all of us to turn our grief into action, and we have to do that.”
Bassett told the crowd about her visit to Charleston this year.
“I can tell you that that city's soul is on fire,” she said. “That soul burns with resilience (…) It brought down the Confederate flag and it brings the trusting community together closer everyday.”
At the mention of the removal of the Confederate flag, which was taken down from the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia soon after the shooting, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Matthews said that some think taking down the flag is enough.
“It's been over a year since the tragedy occurred,” she said. “The flag is just a symbol. We need to take down the means for people to perpetrate their hate. We've got to do more, and there's no sense in folks pretending that we don't need to address gun rights."
In recent months, Sanders and Sheppard have traveled to Capitol Hill and across the country to call for gun reform legislation. Before Congress went on its summer recess earlier this month, they joined Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., House Democrats and other families of gun violence victims on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to call for gun legislation to be brought to a vote.
Several other family members of gun violence victims spoke in support of Clinton on Wednesday, including Christine Leinonen, who lost her only son in the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June, Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal who lost her life, and Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Gifford.
Sheppard, Sanders and the family members of the Emanuel shooting victims have been honored across the country for their message of forgiveness after the tragedy, Glamour Magazine honored them as the ‘Peacemakers of Charleston’ at their 2015 ‘Woman of the Year’ event last year.
STEVEN PORTER IN PHILADELPHIA CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.