Felicia Sanders stared hatred in the face and survived. And as a testimony to her incredible bravery, she’s refused to stay silent about her tragedy.
Sanders is a survivor of the Charleston church shooting carried out by white supremacist Dylann Roof in June 2015. Her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders, and her 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson, died in the attack, along with seven other people who had come together inside South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church for a Bible study.
Felicia told her story of survival at Tina Brown’s Women in the World summit on Wednesday. She explained how she had initially mistaken Roof for “just a child coming in to study the Bible.”
As the shots rang out, she hid under a table with her granddaughter. She heard her son engaging with Roof, asking the shooter why he was carrying out the attack. Felicia said she heard the man say “he had to, because [black Americans] are raping white women and taking over the world,” a claim that Roof later repeated in a jailhouse white supremacist manifesto.
Felicia then turned to the audience with a heartbreaking statement.
“I look around this audience and I see so many caucasians in here. And we really don’t mean you harm. We really do not mean you harm,” she said. “The problem is that we don’t take time to know each other.”
The shooter was sentenced to death in January on 18 counts, and life in prison for an additional 15.
Felicia testified at that sentencing hearing, telling Roof that she still uses the bloodstained Bible she carried the day of the shooting.
At the summit, Felicia said that when she first saw Roof, she thought he was “just a child coming in to study the Bible.” After the attack, she heard that he had been a loner.
“If he took ten more minutes, maybe twenty more minutes to get to know each one of the people that he killed, he would have had some really great friends.”
After that tragic day, Felicia said that she went through the “Our Father,” one of Christianity’s most sacred prayers, and read through it line by line. One of the phrases in that famous prayer is “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.”
“Forgiveness is through and through the Bible,” Felicia said. “I was not going to give Dylann Roof the opportunity to send me to hell right with him.”
She made a plea for racial reconciliation and for people to “get to know one another.”
“The only thing that separates us is not knowing one another. We may have different skin colors, but we all bleed red. Imagine yourself getting to heaven. There’s no segregated area. What are you going to do?”
“God is love. We made this mess, we divided one another. This is not the plan God has for us.”