News & Opinion

Women in the World Conference 2017

I watched Dylann Roof kill my son: race and hatred discussed at ‘Women in the World’

The Daily Beast

April 7, 2017

Felicia Sanders was recalling the moment that her son Tywanza confronted Dylann Roof, who killed nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

As Roof shot and killed people, Tywanza asked Roof, “Why are you doing this?”

At the Women in the World conference in New York City, talking to ABC News presenter Juju Chang, Sanders recalled Roof saying he had to continue his murder spree “because we [black people] were raping white women and taking over the world.”

Tywanza, his mother recalled, said to Roof, “You do not have to do this. We mean you no harm.”

Tywanza was killed that day, and Roof was this week transferred to federal custody following an earlier agreement that he plead guilty to state murder charges in order to avoid a second death sentence. He was sentenced to death in January.

Sanders was speaking at a panel, “Life After Death: Defeating White Supremacy.” She recalled Roof coming to Bible study that day, and seeming calm. Roof engaged twice with the group in their discussions. Then, just as the group closed its eyes to pray, “the bullets started going off.”

Sanders had her granddaughter on one side, and her son and aunt on the other. “I had to choose which one I was going to cover. My granddaughter kept saying, ‘Granny, I’m so afraid.’ I kept telling her to be quiet. So, I just muzzled her mouth into my ribs. I told her to play dead, and told my son to play dead too.”

That is when Tywanza spoke to Roof.

“I look around the audience,” Sanders told the conference, “and see so much Caucasians. We really do not mean you no harm. The problem is that we don’t take time to know each other.”

Tywanza was widely loved, she said: He was 26, and “years ahead of his time.”

At Roof’s trial, Sanders said he would not look any of his victims’ loved ones in the eyes, so she made it her mission to look Roof directly in the eyes. He seemed cold and callous, she noted.

He had been planning his massacre for a year and a half, Sanders said, adding he had deserved “every last one” of the 33 federal hate-crimes charges he had been found guilty of.

“Don’t be afraid of me,” Sanders said to the audience. “The only thing that separates us is not knowing one another. We may have a different skin color, but we all bleed red.”

To audience laughter, she said, “In heaven, there are no segregated areas. What are you going to do?

“We made this mess,” Sanders said. “We divided one another. This is not the plan God had for us.”

After a standing ovation for Sanders, Chang then spoke to Brendan Cox, husband of Jo Cox, the British MP assassinated by an extremist just before Britain’s Brexit vote.

Hatred, said Cox, had been “legitimized” by figures including Donald Trump.

“We should stop calling them populists,” Cox said. “They are racists, homophobes—we should call them what they are, and take them on. They pretend to be the silent majority. But they are not silent, and they are not the majority.”

To confront the alt-right and white nationalism, Cox said minority and persecuted groups needed to mobilize together. These groups collectively were the “true silent majority,” he said—which, for Cox, was why the stories of figures like Sanders were so valuable.