CHARLESTON (AFP) – The solemn verses of “We Shall Overcome” rang out in a college basketball arena Friday at a vigil for the nine victims of a massacre at a historic African-American church.
Several thousand people — white and black — came out to the College of Charleston TD Arena a few blocks from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, scene of Wednesday s bloodshed, hours after the alleged gunman Dylann Roof appeared in court.
Each person was given roses at the entrance, compliments of an anonymous donor.
“We come together this evening in pray and love,” said Mayor Joseph Riley, who shared the stage with several of Charleston s leading church leaders.
“Our hearts are broken. We have an anguish that we never had before,” said Riley, adding that Roof had “miserably failed” to drive a racial wedge through the picturesque city of 129,000.
Roof is charged with murdering Emanuel s chief pastor and eight others, all African Americans, with a powerful handgun during an evening Bible study class.
About 50 relatives of the dead filled seats at the front, and stood up when invited to identify themselves. Also present were South Carolina s two senators in Washington, including Republican presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham.
The two-hour vigil, organized by the city, opened with Charleston s pipe and drum band playing “Amazing Grace,” before Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy took turns to appeal for community unity.
Reverend Nelson Rivers of the Charity Missionary Baptist Church prompted strong applause when he called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag outside South Carolina s state legislature in Columbia.
The Civil War era flag is resented by some as a symbol of racism and white supremacy, and by others as a banner of Southern regional pride.
“If you want to do a living testimony to these nine lives, you will take that flag down,” said Rivers forcefully.
The emotional highlight came at the end, when the crowd joined arms, swayed left and right and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the 1960s civil rights anthem that, by some accounts, was sung as early as the mid-1940s during a labor dispute in Charleston.