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Felicia Sanders speaking onstage at the Women in the World Canada Summit. (WITW)

'Let's erase racism'

In powerful interview, Felicia Sanders recalls surviving the 2015 Charleston church shooting

By WITW Staff on September 12, 2017

Felicia Sanders made a powerful appearance at the inaugural Women in the World Canada Summit on Monday in a conversation with David Walmsley, the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. Sanders survived the mass shooting the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston in June 2015. Her son, Tywanza, and aunt Susie were among the nine people killed in the shooting rampage. On Monday, Sanders drew rapt attention from the audience in Toronto as she recalled the horror of witnessing her son shot to death, and opened up about how he confronted the killer, who is now awaiting execution.

Sanders said when the attack began, her eyes were closed during a prayer. She thought the popping sounds of gunfire were an electrical malfunction taking place in the church. Still, her instincts told her to urge those around her to take cover under a table. When Sanders realized she was in the midst of a shooting, she was faced with an impossible decision: try to protect her son, her 87-year-old aunt or her 11-year-old granddaughter. Sanders used her body to shield the body of her young granddaughter. “I held her so close to me,” Sanders said, “that at one point I thought that I’d suffocated her.” Her son had been wounded by gunfire, but was still alive when they came face to face with 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who had been sitting at the Bible study session for an hour before opening fire.

“He stood up and asked this guy, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Sanders said Roof replied, “You’re raping our white women and taking over the world.”

Tywanza, she said, then told Roof, “You don’t have to do this. We are not hurting anyone.'”

Sanders then revealed Tywanza’s last words before he was fatally shot by Roof. “We mean you know harm,” Sanders recalls her son having said repeatedly.

“And that’s when he emptied the gun on my son.” He was 26. Watch her moving account of that terrifying moment below.

This was Sanders’ second appearance on the Women in the World stage. In April, she told her story at the Women in the World New York Summit, sharing with the audience that forgiving Roof “was the easiest thing” she’s had to do throughout the entire ordeal. It was a theme she touched on again in her conversation with Walmsley. Watch:

Much has changed in the U.S. since Sanders’ first visit to Women in the World, most notably the deadly clashes at between protesters and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., last month, and the seeming rise in open expressions of hate in the wake of the bitter 2016 election. Following Sanders’ interview, Walmsley led a panel discussion about fighting hate in America with Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center, Pardeep Singh Kaleka, the co-founder of Seve2Unite, Sanders, and Patrice O’Neill, the executive producer and founder of Not In Our Town.

O’Neill talked about how in recent years white supremacists began infiltrating Billings, Montana. The problem began with the toppling of gravestones in a Jewish cemetery, but soon the Billings police chief said he was overwhelmed by trying to stay ahead of the surge in hate crimes, O’Neill told the audience. She went on to explain how the community came together to stand up to hate. One clever way the community responded to a 6-year-old Jewish boy who had a brick thrown through the window of his home after he placed a menorah in the window was by having 10 thousand people place paper menorahs in the windows of their homes. The local newspaper had included them in one edition and urged people to take part. “What if we’re all Jewish?” O’Neill said was the thinking behind the effort. After that, the organization of white supremacists abruptly stopped. Watch her discuss how that happened below.

The conversation then returned to Sanders and the feelings stirred up inside her after seeing the deadly violence in Charlottesville unfold, and President Donald Trump’s response to it. “You have to realize, I’ve laid under 77 gunshots. I’ve seen mu aunt die. I’ve seen my son die right in front of me,” Sanders said. “Every time I see this and hear the president — I respect the president because his is the president. But I think in God’s own time, he’s going to be dealt with.”

Walmsley also gave Sanders the final word of the panel, in which she implored everyone watching to heed three simple words.” Let’s erase racism.”

Watch the complete ‘Fighting Hate in the U.S.’ panel and highlights below.

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