7 years after Mother Emanuel shooting, best friend of youngest victim Tywanza Sanders reflects on his legacy

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS) – It’s now been seven years since the tragic massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston when a white supremacist gunman killed nine Black parishioners during an evening Bible study.

The youngest victim, Tywanza Sanders, had taken a bus from his job at the barbershop to worship with his mother that night.

Dominique Gray had been friends with Sanders since he was only 11 years old.

He said it’s always “heavy” around this time of year, but through the work of a nonprofit he founded with several other friends in Sanders’ honor, they have turned tragedy into triumph.

Gray said he didn’t sleep the night of the massacre. He was up all night making difficult phone calls to friends, letting them know that their brother Tywanza had died.

“I’m calling one friend and then I have to call another friend and it’s just repeating, rinse and recycle of grief and sadness.”

Sanders was Gray’s “protector,” and Gray said his bravery was demonstrated that day.

According to survivors, Sanders died trying to protect his family from the gunman.

“The gentleman pulled out the weapon, and Tywanza was the first one to confront him and say, ‘You don’t have to do this, we’re not here to harm you.'”

Sanders then got in front of his great aunt Susan Jackson, before she was too killed. His mother and niece were among the survivors.

“His niece that he protected just graduated high school so if it wasn’t for him she might not have been here today to be able to do that,” Gray said.

Gray said that Sanders exuded warmth and love, and was a jack of all trades.

“Wanza knew that he had to try to do everything or had to have his hand in every pot because God only blessed him with 25 years of life,” he said. “So he was trying to do everything and everything he could do before he left this planet.”

Sanders’ family started the Tywanza Sanders Legacy Foundation in his honor, which awards a number of annual scholarships to local youth.

Gray co-founded Race 4 Achievement, a nonprofit, aimed at keeping Sanders’ legacy alive.

“Race 4 Achievement will forever ensure that Tywanza’s impact on the lives of others is remembered, honored and celebrated,” the nonprofit’s website reads.

According to Gray, Sanders’ final Instagram posted, just hours before the shooting, shared the heart of who he was.

The post was a Jackie Robinson quote: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

“Look at it now, look how much Wanza has impacted, the youth in Charleston, the youth in the Charlotte area with the things that both organizations are able to do,” Gray said. “Tywanza has touched a lot of lives and will continue to touch a lot of lives.”

Gray said he believes laws should be changed at the federal level to fix loopholes in the system that allowed the gunman in this case to obtain a firearm despite his criminal record.

“Ultimately I want to know when will America wake up and learn?” Gray said. “There’s a lot of people that – ‘Oh, they’re taking our rights away and our guns’ – how is it harder, it’s harder for someone to get a driver’s license than to get a gun. Just think about that. That is insane.”

South Carolina is one of two states without a hate crimes law.

That bill is named after Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the senator and pastor who was murdered in the racist attack at Mother Emanuel AME. It stalled in the state Senate this session, and later died.

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House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn released a statement Friday on the massacre and the push for legislative change.

“Today we remember the 9 innocent worshipers who were murdered at Mother Emanuel AME Church,” Clyburn said. “Since that tragic day, our nation has not enacted significant legislation to prevent gun violence. The Senate must act to prevent future tragedies like this from ever happening again.”

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