JONATHAN DREW, Associated Press
MEG KINNARD, Associated Press
NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AP) — A choir and band launched into a gospel tune and roused hundreds of mourners from their seats Thursday in a crescendo of music at the first funeral for victims of the massacre at a historic black church.
Police officers stood guard and checked bags as mourners filed in for the funeral, which was held as the debate over the rebel Confederate flag and other Old South symbols continued. A monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis had the phrase “Black Lives Matter” spray-painted on it Thursday in Richmond, Virginia, the latest of several monuments to the secessionist, pro-slavery Confederacy to be defaced.
Nine Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church members were killed when police say a gunman walked into a Bible study June 17 and opened fire in a racially motived attack.
People stood to clap, nod and sway — some closing their eyes under the exertion of the cathartic singing. Ushers walked through the aisles with boxes of tissues for people to dab their tears as an organ, drums and bass guitar played along.
The service was fitting for Ethel Lance, the 70-year-old Charleston native with “an infectious smile.” She served with vigor as an officer at Emanuel church, said the church’s interim leader, the Rev. Norvel Goff.
“When sister Lance praised the Lord, you had to strap on your spiritual seat belt,” Goff said.
Despite pleas to withhold debate until after the funerals, the South Carolina governor’s call to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the Statehouse in response to the killings was reverberating around the South. A growing number of leading politicians said Civil War symbols should be removed from places of honor, despite their integral role as elements of southern identity.
Some authorities have worried openly about a backlash as people take matters into their own hands.
“Black Lives Matter” was spray-painted on a monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday, only the latest statue to be defaced. On Tuesday and Wednesday, African-American churches in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Macon, Georgia were intentionally set afire.
But in Charleston, the early gestures of forgiveness by the victims’ families toward a shooting suspect who embraced the Confederate flag set a healing tone that has continued through a series of unity rallies, drawing thousands of people intent on leaving no room for racial hate.
“A hateful, disillusioned young man came into the church filled with hate … and the reaction was love,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said at the day’s second funeral, held for Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. “He came in with symbols of division. The confederate battle flag is coming down off our state capitol.”
As the two victims were laid to rest, the debate over Confederate symbols and statues raged on. In Richmond, where the Davis statue was vandalized, a small group from the Southern heritage advocacy group Virginia Flaggers waved Confederate Flags next to the monument.
Barry Isenhour, a member of the group, said they were offering a $1,500 reward for tips that led to the conviction of those responsible for the spray painting.
Some people in cars driving by honked in support of the Virginia Flaggers. Others yelled obscenities at the group.
While the group was there, 20-year-old Caleb Pollard ran around it, shirtless with American flag-themed leggings and underwear. He wore an American flag as a cape and pointed to it, asking the group: “Why don’t you raise this flag?”
In Memphis, Tennessee, the mayor there said he thinks the grave and statue of Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest should be removed from a city park.
The suspected gunman, Dylann Storm Roof, had a Confederate license plate, and images on a website created in his name months before the attacks show him posing with the flag and burning and desecrating the U.S. flag. He also poses at Confederate museums, former slave plantations and slave graves.
Boyd Young, who represents Roof’s family, issued a statement on their behalf saying that they would answer questions later but wanted to allow the victims’ families to grieve.
Gov. Nikki Haley started the groundswell against Confederate icons Monday by successfully calling on South Carolina lawmakers to debate taking down the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the Statehouse. Then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, also a conservative Republican, brought down four secessionist flags at the Capitol there. He compared the banner to the universally shunned symbols of Nazi Germany, a stunning reversal in a region where the Confederacy was formed 154 years ago and where Jefferson Davis was elected president.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.