Charleston's Emanuel AME Church blends prayer and politics at site of 2015 mass shooting

Charleston church blends prayer, politics

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, turned tragedy into action after a white supremacist shot and killed nine worshipers in 2015. Known as Mother Emanuel, the church is the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore and has become a base camp in the fight for change.

Reverend Eric Manning has been leading the congregation since about a year after the mass shooting, which killed beloved Pastor Clementa Pinckney. Manning told "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King that the process of bringing the church back to a new normal is still going on.

"We never really fully understand the amount of trauma a church, especially within the African-American community, experiences when that type of hatred is displayed," he said.

That hatred is something 75-year-old Polly Sheppard knows all too well. She said she was one of the few people who had a conversation with the gunman, Dylann Roof, the day of the shooting. Roof was convicted in 2016 of all 33 federal charges, including hate crimes.

"I was under the table, looking up at him," she said. "I could see his shoes. He had on dirty Timberland boots, and he came up and asked me, 'Did I shoot you yet?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'I'm not going to. I'm going to leave you here to tell the story.'"

"One of the things that was so extraordinary about this horrible tragedy is that many people in the church seemed to forgive very quickly. Were you one of those people?" King asked Sheppard.

"I wasn't the first one. I was busy at home, feeling sorry for myself," Sheppard said. "You know, I said, 'Lord, why did you leave me to think about all of this?'" She said she felt a guilt for surviving, but that she is healing.

Sheppard said she would like to minister Roof in prison. "I would go strictly by the Bible, and go into the forgiveness part and just teach him how love is," she said.

Asked about the state of the country today, Sheppard said racism "is still alive and well."

"That's a fact," she said. "I don't know what we can do about it. When things happen, then we all come together, but after a while, we go back to the same old things we've been doing."

Politics often intersect with prayer at Mother Emanuel, which has been involved in nearly every political movement since its founding in 1816.

The church's basement, the site of the 2015 shooting, now hosts a Congressional Black Caucus Institute boot camp, which aims to improve access to advocacy and campaign training for all Americans, free of charge. One of the speakers at a recent workshop was House Majority Whip James Clyburn.

Asked why he thought the training was necessary to empower future black politicians, Clyburn said, "Well, I think one of the big mistakes we make, especially in my party is not recognizing that there's talent in the African-American community beyond that which is traditional, and in order to make sure that we get beyond tradition is one of the reasons that we started the boot camp."

Clyburn said he hopes the participants will learn "that politics is more than a science to be studied. It is an art to be practiced … Because art, you never perfect the art."

The congressman, who is expected to endorse former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination for president, said it doesn't bother him that there are no longer any black candidates in the field.

"We can't guarantee success. We can guarantee opportunity, and what the DNC did was guarantee opportunity," he said. "We started out with a big number, and that's one of the reasons we had the boot camp — teach people how to fundraise … because what got people of color out of this contest more than anything else was being able to afford to get their message out."

In South Carolina, 60% of Democratic voters are black, making the first-in-the-South primary a test of who can connect with black voters.

"South Carolina is a very conservative state, but there's something about fundamental fairness that you get in South Carolinians," Clyburn said. "You look through history, you never saw the acrimony in South Carolina that you've got in Mississippi, Alabama."

For people who struggle with the divisive and hateful rhetoric in the country, Sheppard said her message to them is "communicate and try to get along … Love is the answer to everything."