Emanuel AME shooting survivors urge SC senators to pass hate crimes bill

Two survivors of the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were in Columbia, urging senators to pass a hate crimes bill.
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 7:05 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 28, 2023 at 8:05 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - For the first time Tuesday, two survivors of the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were in Columbia, urging senators to pass a hate crimes bill.

While some of them have shown public support for the legislation in the past — which has been proposed in previous years but never reached the governor’s desk — the bill’s lead sponsor, Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston, said this is the first time they have testified to lawmakers on its behalf.

“We need a law to address all these issues. We should never have to go to church and go through what we went through,” survivor Polly Sheppard told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday morning.

Last legislative session, the House of Representatives passed a bill to establish a hate crimes law in South Carolina, but it died in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers contended it had too much opposition to warrant a debate.

A new bill passed the House earlier this month in a strong bipartisan vote and now awaits debate again in the upper chamber after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance it to the floor in a 15-8 vote Tuesday afternoon.

As she addressed senators earlier in the day, Sheppard sat alongside another survivor, Felicia Sanders.

Both recounted the evening of June 17, 2015, as a white supremacist gunman joined their Bible study class before opening fire on the group of African-American worshippers, killing nine people.

“77 bullets flew through Emanuel AME fellowship hall. I held my granddaughter under my body so tight that I thought I actually suffocated her,” Sanders said.

Sanders is also the mother of the youngest of the nine victims, Tywanza Sanders, whose father, Tyrone, also testified before lawmakers.

The bill they and several others spoke in support of, H.3014, would provide for penalty enhancements —  additional prison time and fines — for people already convicted of violent crimes that are determined to have been perpetrated as hate crimes against someone(s) because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.

Those violent crimes include, for example, murder, aggravated assault, and armed robbery but would not include crimes like vandalism.

The bill is formally named the “Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act,” in honor of the church’s former pastor, who was one of the nine victims and served as a state senator.

“I’m praying, I’m hoping that this hate crime bill will pass so that no other family — it wouldn’t stop them, but if they know that they have consequences that’s going to follow what they do, that’s going to slow it down tremendously,” Felicia Sanders said.

They say without this bill in place, it sends a message that South Carolina tolerates the kind of evil that took their loved ones.

Along with Wyoming, South Carolina remains one of two states without a hate crimes law.

“And I wonder why,” Sheppard said. “I think if you had gone through maybe what we went through.”

Other testifying in support of the bill Tuesday included business leaders, Myrtle Beach’s police chief, and a representative of South Carolina’s Jewish community.

The latter speaker cited a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League that antisemitic incidents in South Carolina rose 193% last year from the year before.