CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A week of funerals lie ahead for victims of the Charleston church massacre that killed nine people, re-opened old racial wounds and evoked memories of past episodes of violence against black churches.
Bells tolled across the city Sunday as thousands linked up on a towering bridge and a historic sanctuary reopened in displays of unity. Area residents repeated messages of solidarity, love and even defiance of evil at the remembrances, hopeful their expressions would drown out the hate embodied in the slayings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Authorities say a white gunman was welcomed into a bible study last week at the historic black church before making racist remarks and shooting nine people to death.
“Because the doors of Mother Emanuel are open on this Sunday, it sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff, who led the first Sunday service since the killings at the church known as “Mother Emanuel” because it is one of the oldest black congregations in the South.
During the service, many stood — some holding small children — to shout their praises or raise their hands toward the church’s vaulted ceiling. For added security, police officers stood watch over worshippers.
As Emanuel’s congregation sang a gospel hymn, church bells rang throughout the “Holy City” —nicknamed because of the numerous churches here.
Later Sunday, thousands of people gathered on either side of the city’s iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and marched across in a showing of solidarity and healing. Underneath the more than 2-mile span with towering cable supports, dozens of boats gathered and blew their air horns in support, while cars honked as they passed on the bridge.
When the marchers from the two sides met near the middle, they cheered, clapped and broke into songs including “This Little Light of Mine.”
Juliett Marsh, a 56-year-old from Summerville, described the walk through humid air and temperatures in the 90s as tough but “exhilarating.”
“It feels great,” she said. “There’s so much love out here.”
Before the march, Shulonda Powell said she drove 45 miles from McClellanville to participate because she wanted to show solidarity with the victims.
“I grew up in the AME church, so everyone is family,” she said. “I want people to learn from this experience and see everyone coming together.”
The bridge is named after a former state lawmaker and vocal Confederate flag supporter. The slayings have renewed calls for the flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, in part because photographs of suspect Dylann Roof in a purported manifesto showed him holding Confederate flags. The 2,500-word manifesto also contained hate-filled writings.
Less than 2 miles from Emanuel, someone vandalized a Confederate monument, spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” on the statue. City workers used a tarp to cover up the graffiti, police said.
Photos on local news websites from before the tarp was put up showed the graffiti in bright red paint, along with the message “This is the problem. # RACIST.”
Around the country, pastors asked people to pray for Charleston. In Atlanta’s 1st Iconium Baptist Church, a predominantly black church with a tradition of speaking out for social justice, the Rev. Timothy McDonald told his congregation Sunday that he had met shooting victim the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor, last April during a visit to Columbia, South Carolina, with a group of ministers.
“You talk about a promising young man,” he said, expressing shock at the manner of Pinckney’s death.
“How do you sit in a Bible Study next to a pastor for almost an hour and then you just stand up and shoot to kill? That kind of hate, that kind of evil – we need God y’all. We need Jesus,” McDonald said.
Goff, a presiding elder of the 7th District AME Church in South Carolina, was appointed to lead the historic Charleston church after Pinckney’s death. A black sheet was draped over Pinckney’s usual chair, which sat empty. At least one parishioner kneeled down in front of it and prayed.
Gail Lincoln said she typically attends another AME church nearby, but felt compelled to visit Emanuel this week.
Lincoln said she was glad visitors who came to Charleston in the days after the shooting took note of how gracious people have been in the face of despair and indignation.
“It sends a message to everyone that people are people,” she said, “and just like we can grieve others, they grieve with us.”
Associated Press contributors include Mike Stewart, Don Schanche, David Goldman, Emily Masters, Allen Breed, Josh Replogle and John Mone.