Thousands of mourners clutching red and white roses attended a vigil in the stunned city of Charleston on Friday to remember nine African-American men and women allegedly shot dead by an alleged white supremacist.
Holding hands, many with tears in their eyes, people sang the protest song We Shall Overcome in response to the carnage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, as suspected gunman Dylann Roof was charged with nine murders and ordered to be held without bond on Friday.
Roof, 21, reportedly said he “wanted to start a race war,” while gunning down the nine black worshipers, an act authorities are treating as a hate crime and investigating as possible “domestic terrorism.”
The Wednesday night shooting was the worst attack on a US place of worship in decades and comes at a time of revived racial tensions in many parts of the country.
However, the response from the community and even victims’ families has been one of “love,” as the genteel coastal city comes to terms with the tragedy.
Tearful relatives came forward at Roof’s bond hearing expressing their grief and forgiveness toward the alleged shooter who appeared through a video link.
At the vigil held at the College of Charleston TD Arena, community leaders expressed similar messages of faith and compassion and said the tragedy would not drive a racial divide through the city.
“We come together this evening in prayer and love,” Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said, appearing on stage with several of Charleston’s religious leaders.
Charleston’s pipe and drum band played the hymn Amazing Grace, before Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy appealed for unity.
“Our hearts are broken. We have an anguish that we never had before,” Riley said.
Roof appeared on screen in court from an adjacent jail block for a 14-minute bail hearing, flanked by two guards in dark body armor.
He was dressed in standard prison garb and appeared subdued, bowing his head slightly, as Judge James Gosnell asked him his age and if he had a job.
A detective confirmed Roof had two previous run-ins with the law for trespassing and a pending drug possession charge.
Families mourned deceased loved ones as the bail hearing took place.
“Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But he was my hero,” Felicia Sanders said at the hearing.
Others pledged to forgive the suspected shooter.
“I forgive you and God have mercy on your soul,” said Nadine Collier — the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, 70, a lifelong member of the Emanuel church.
Several media outlets reported that Roof confessed to investigators that he walked into Mother Emanuel — one of the oldest black churches in the country — and opened fire on a Bible study class.
His arrest warrant revealed how he allegedly shot the six women and three men multiple times with a high-caliber handgun and then stood over a survivor to make a “racially inflammatory” statement.
US Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce said authorities were looking at the killings “from all angles.”
“This heartbreaking episode was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community and the department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism,” Pierce said.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said she believed Roof should face the death penalty if convicted.
“This is an absolute hate crime,” Haley told NBC’s Today show. “We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty. This is the worst hate that I’ve seen and the country has seen in a long time.”
Roof’s family, in their first public reaction to the killings, offered condolences to the dead and spoke of their “shock, grief and disbelief.”
Roof was arrested in North Carolina on Thursday shortly after the shooting and brought back to South Carolina.
Conflicting descriptions have emerged of Roof, a high-school dropout whose Facebook page includes a picture of him wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.
He is alternately described as a quiet — even friendly — loner who snapped — or as a calculating white supremacist who supported segregation and had been planning for some time to kill black people.
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