A 21-year-old white man has been charged with nine counts of murder in connection with an attack on a historic black South Carolina church, police said on Friday, and media reports said he had hoped to incite a race war in the United States.
Residents of Charleston flocked to the nearly-200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as they struggled to comprehend how suspected shooter Dylann Roof could sit with worshippers for an hour of Bible study before allegedly opening fire on Wednesday, killing nine black people and fleeing into the night, triggering a 14-hour manhunt.
“This was not merely a mass shooting, not merely a matter of gun violence, this was a racial hate crime and must be confronted as such,” said Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 to confront lynchings in the United States.
The attack came in a year that has seen waves of protest across the United States over police killings of unarmed black men in cities including New York, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, sparking some of the largest race riots the nation has seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
From U.S. President Barack Obama, who said the attack stirred memories of “a dark past,” to residents on the streets of Charleston, Americans expressed outrage at an act intended to provoke a “race war” in the United States.
“I grew up when racism was just a way of life,” said Mary Meynardie, 90, who is white, as she stopped by the police tape that still surrounded the church known as “Mother Emanuel.” “I wouldn't have been surprised if it was somebody 60, 70 years old who had that much hate, but where does this hate come from?”
The latest in a series of mass shootings that have rocked the United States also illustrated some of the risks posed by the nation's liberal gun laws, which gun-rights supporters say are protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The elephant in the room is guns. South Carolina and the country have gone gun-crazy,” said state Representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents Charleston. “How many times do we need to come together? How many times do we need to unite?”
Roof confessed to the attack and said he intended to set off new racial confrontations, CNN reported, citing a law enforcement source. He sat with parishioners for an hour before opening fire and almost did not go through with the attack because he had been welcomed, NBC News reported, citing a law enforcement source.
Charleston Police spokesman Charles Francis declined to comment on the reports of a confession.
The alleged shooter is due in court on Friday for a bail hearing, where he will be charged with nine counts of murder as well as a weapons charge, Charleston police said.
In addition to the church's leader and Democratic state Senator Clementa Pinckney, 41, victims included pastors DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; and Reverend Daniel Simmons, 74.
Also killed were Cynthia Hurd, 54, a public library employee; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; and Myra Thompson 59, an associate pastor at the church, according to the county coroner.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, told NBC's “Today” show she believed state prosecutors should pursue a death sentence.
The AME church was founded in the early 19th century by black worshippers who were limited in how they could practice their faith at white-dominated churches. The church was rebuilt after being burned down in the late 1820s when one of its founders drafted plans for a slave revolt.
Compounding anger over the killings, the South Carolina capitol continues to fly the Confederate battle flag, the symbol of the pro-slavery South during the U.S. Civil War.
Brooks, the NAACP leader, renewed calls for the flag to be taken down. Roof's car bore the Confederate flag and he posed for a portrait on social media wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
“Some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by, a symbol of heritage, not hate,” Brooks said. “But when we see that symbol lifted up as an emblem for hate … that symbol has to come down, that symbol has to be removed from our state capitol.”