June 25, 2015

Two victims of Charleston Massacre mourned as battle rages over flag

Ceremonies occur as controversy grips nation

Charleston Shooting Funerals
Charleston Shooting Brian Snyder/Reuters

Pleshette Grant and her son Evan arrive for funeral services to begin for Ethel Lance at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina June 25, 2015.

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - South Carolina took a small step toward healing the wounds of last week's massacre at a historic black church in Charleston as mourners gathered for the funerals of two of the nine victims.

Thursday's services for Ethel Lance, 70, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, come days after some of the families of the slain black churchgoers offered unqualified forgiveness for the young white man accused of their murders.

The power and grace of their words at the first court appearance for the suspect have sparked an intense dialogue across the U.S. South over the legacy of slavery and its symbols, centering on the Civil War-era battle flag of the Confederacy.

At Lance's funeral, her oldest grandson alluded to that theme. "She was a victim of hate. She can be a symbol of love as she was in life. Hate is powerful but love is more powerful," Brandon Risher told the congregation.

Funerals for the other seven victims, including services for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the attack took place, are scheduled in the coming days. President Barack Obama will deliver Pinckney's eulogy on Friday.

Thousands turned out on Thursday evening for Pinckney's wake at the church. The line of mourners stretched for three blocks, including scores of his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers in dark suits and black and gold ties, as well as members of the public.

"It's important for me to see him one last time. It brings finality," said Maxine Frasier Riley, 65, a retired school guidance counselor who served on a housing project board with Pinckney.

Services for Coleman-Singleton, a high school track coach and mother of three, were also held on Thursday, at Charleston's Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.

In the foyer of the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, Lance's body, dressed in a glittering silver dress, was laid in an open casket.

The mood in Charleston is somber, said Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, who will try to attend all nine funerals.

"There's some anger. I don't think we've really started healing. I see more outpouring of love and empathy and sympathy," he said.

North Charleston is the city where a white police officer was caught on video shooting to death an unarmed black man this year in an incident that shocked the country, one of a series of killings that have led to a national outcry over law enforcement's treatment of African Americans.

Last week's slaying of nine worshippers during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has had a powerful impact as well, in part because of the apparent racist motives of the suspect, Dylann Roof.

Roof's family said on Thursday that they would try to answer questions as more information becomes available, but now wanted to reflect on the victims and their grieving families.

"We feel it would be inappropriate to say anything at this time other than that we are truly sorry for their loss," attorney Boyd Young said in a statement on behalf of the Roof family.

In the aftermath of the slayings, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and other Republicans have reversed their position on flying the Confederate flag and are calling for its removal from the State House grounds, saying it is divisive.

In Columbia, the state capital, supporters of the flag said the debate over its display played directly into the motives of the suspected gunman, who posed with the crimson-and-blue banner in photos on a website that included a racist screed.

"That flag did not start a race war. An idiot pulling the trigger on nine innocent people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina started this," said T. Leland Summers, commander of the state's division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, at a news conference in front of the flag.

The controversy has spread across the country, with politicians adding to the voices clamoring for the removal of Confederate symbols and names, and major retailers removing merchandise with Confederate images from stores and websites.

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, a former South Carolina lieutenant governor and state senator who helped broker a compromise that relocated the flag from atop the state capitol to a nearby monument, sees its removal as a sign of "goodwill to all those who may be offended by it."

He said he wanted to preserve names linked to the Confederacy on monuments, cemeteries, streets and buildings.