Civil Rights Movement

How Polly Sheppard Taught Me that Existence is Resistance

Jemar Tisby

In February of 2018, during Black History Month, I had the honor of co-leading a pilgrimage to Charleston, South Carolina. That city served as the major point of entry on the East Coast for newly arrived black slaves. The deplorable institution of race-based chattel slavery shaped the entire history of the city and the state in ways that endure to the present day. Most enduring of all, though, is not the suffering, but the survival, indeed the flourishing of black people in America despite slavery and racism.

Every American has the responsibility to read and learn about this nation’s racial history, but I strongly recommend actually visiting the sites in person.

My co-leader on the Charleston Pilgrimage, Otis Pickett, serves as a professor of History at Mississippi College near Jackson, Mississippi. He is also from Charleston—born and raised. He took us to one of the slave markets in his hometown. All that remains now are a couple of brick walls that kept the African slaves penned inside.

To touch those bricks, to run my fingers along the gray mortar in between, gave my spirit a tangible connection with those who came before. I wondered how they could have ever found the will to keep living, laughing, and loving even as their fellow humans beings treated them like property? I wondered if I would have had the strength to do the same.

The remaining brick walls of the slave market in Charleston

On the last day we enjoyed a banquet at a church with local Charlestonians. The gathering occurred weekly as a book study between black and white citizens in the city. They came together in an intentional effort to bridge the racial chasm that remains in the city.

They served the food buffet style and the line of people stretched around the corner and into the hallway as people loaded their plates with string beans, biscuits with gravy, rice with gravy, and smothered chicken with gravy. My stomach groaned with hunger, so I struck up a conversation with the people around me to pass the time.

My first round at the buffet

I recognized one woman in line from the church service I had attended on Sunday just a couple days before. Her congregation, Emanuel AME Church, honored her for being a black history maker in their city. She was a tall, lean, energetic and talkative woman. As I listened to her animatedly explain her current justice work, my eyes kept wandering to her friend who stood silently next to her. She was short and round and had a far off look in her eyes, like she was seeing something important that the rest of us couldn’t. During the conversation she simply nodded along with what her sister-friend was saying, but never added any comments of her own.

Finally, I asked, “Is this your friend?” The first woman responded in the affirmative but what she added next made this encounter one of the most memorable of my life.

“Do you remember the shooting that happened at Mother Emanuel?” asked the first woman.

“Yes, ma’am.” I responded.

“Well this is Polly Sheppard. She was in the room that night.”

Ms. Sheppard was more than just in the room that fateful evening of the Emanuel Nine slayings. The killer had spoken directly to her.

Polly Sheppard (seated) and her friend at the meal to close the Charleston Pilgrimage.

According to Ms. Sheppard’s testimony in court, after he stopped firing, the young white man walked over to where Ms. Sheppard had been hiding under a table.

“Did I shoot you?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.” With those words, the killer left a survivor.

Now I stood face-to-face with a woman who had witnessed one of the most horrific hate crimes of the 21st century. I had just met her. I did not know anything about her other than what I had just heard in the last few seconds. That did not stop me from forcing the words “Thank you” through a throat constricted with emotion and wrapping her in an embrace.

We chatted amiably about less tragic topics for the next few minutes. We got our plates and listened to a moving program about the racial progress that members of this weekly book club had made with one another and in their own lives. I kept looking over to where Ms. Sheppard was seated. I think I kept checking to see if she had changed clothes into white robes or had a heavenly glow around her. She had not. She simply sat there quietly eating and, most curiously of all, laughing.

How could someone who stared evil in the eye and came a finger-twitch away from being killed still smile, laugh, and find joy? The simple answer is her faith in Christ. Ms. Sheppard is a Christian. That’s why she was there at that Bible study on June 17, 2015. That’s why even afterwards, she refuses to hate the man who killed her fellow church members and friends. That’s why she was sitting just a few feet away from me at a table built for reconciliation.

To me Polly Sheppard is a hero, role model, and example. Not because she marched or picketed or boycotted but simply because she survived. Through no choice of her own, she was plunged into the darkest core of racist violence and the evil that evinces it, but she still found her way to the light of hope that makes life worth living again.

Not only has she survived, Polly Sheppard has become a witness to testify against the evil and darkness. She has become a bearer of the good news that hate does not triumph over love. Injustice will give way to justice. And the people who know oppression best are the ones who can best inspire the hope to overcome it.

I thank Ms. Sheppard along with Felecia Sanders and her granddaughter, the other two survivors from that horrific night in Charleston. I thank them for setting the example of strength in a life-or-death situation that gives people like me the inspiration to continue fighting for justice.

Earlier when I had touched the brick walls of the slave pens in Charleston, I wondered how they could have found the will to endure their oppression. Now in Polly Sheppard, I had met a woman who embodied the strength of my ancestors. My ambition is to emulate Ms. Sheppard and all those survivors whose very existence is resistance.

Praying for racial justice in the 21st century at the altar in Mother Emanuel Church

3 thoughts on “How Polly Sheppard Taught Me that Existence is Resistance

  1. Jamye

    Thank you, sir.

  2. Laura Grant

    Thank you so much for this feature on true hero, Polly Sheppard. Her story and witness to God’s heart will echo into eternity. We will worship God with her forever.

  3. Leonard Dumire

    Thank you, Brother Jemar Tisby.

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