Hundreds attend 1st funerals for church shooting victims

Mourners gather before the funeral service for Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Mourners gather before the funeral service for Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A choir and band launched into one of Ethel Lance’s favorite gospel tunes and roused hundreds of mourners from their seats Thursday in a crescendo of music at the first funeral for victims of the massacre at a historic black church.

People stood to clap, nod and sway — some closing their eyes under the exertion of the cathartic singing. Ushers walked through the aisles with boxes of tissues for people to dab their tears. An organ, drums and bass guitar provided the rhythm.

The service was fitting for the 70-year-old Charleston native with “an infectious smile,” who served with vigor as an officer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the congregation’s interim pastor said.

“When it was time for the ushers to usher, she had the usher strut,” the Rev. Norvel Goff said. “When Sister Lance praised the Lord, you had to strap on your spiritual seat belt.”

Police officers stood guard and checked bags as mourners filed in.

Despite pleas to withhold debate until after the funerals, the South Carolina governor’s call to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the Statehouse in response to the killings was reverberating around the South. A growing number of leading politicians said Civil War symbols should be removed from places of honor, despite their integral role as elements of Southern identity.

Some authorities have worried openly about a backlash as people take matters into their own hands.

“Black Lives Matter” was spray-painted on a monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday, only the latest statue to be defaced. On Tuesday and Wednesday, African-American churches in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Macon, Georgia, were intentionally set afire.

But in Charleston, the early gestures of forgiveness by the victims’ families toward a shooting suspect who embraced the Confederate flag set a healing tone that has continued through a series of unity rallies, drawing thousands of people intent on leaving no room for racial hate.

“A hateful, disillusioned young man came into the church filled with hate … and the reaction was love,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said at the day’s second funeral, held for Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. “He came in with symbols of division. The confederate battle flag is coming down off our state Capitol.”

Before the second service, more than 100 members of Coleman-Singleton’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority formed a ring around the main part of the large sanctuary as part of an Ivy Beyond the Wall ceremony. One by one, the women, clad all in white, filed past the open casket with green ivy leaves, then clasped hands and sang.

Funerals for the other victims were set to happen over the next week, including one Friday for Emanuel’s lead pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, where President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy.

A somber procession of mourners filed past Pinckney’s open casket during a viewing Thursday night at the Emanuel church. The state senator also had public viewings Thursday at a church in Ridgeland, South Carolina, and a day earlier in the state Capitol.

Gov. Nikki Haley eulogized Coleman-Singleton, commending her desire to help others.

Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton attended as well, and referred to Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old white man facing nine murder charges. Sharpton recalled how he spent the morning of June 17 watching Loretta Lynch be sworn in as the nation’s first black female attorney general.

“That morning, I saw how far we have come,” Sharpton said. “That night, I saw how far yet we have to go.”

Authorities said Lance and Coleman-Singleton had welcomed the gunman into their Bible study, where he sat among them for nearly an hour before opening fire.

Lance had served as a sexton at Emanuel for the last five years, helping to keep the historic building clean. She loved gospel music, watched over a family that grew to include her five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and pushed them to earn advanced degrees.

“I want my grandmother’s legacy to be what she stood for,” said granddaughter Aja Risher. “She is going to be a catalyst for change in this country.”

Haley started the groundswell against Confederate icons Monday by successfully calling on South Carolina lawmakers to debate taking down the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the Statehouse. Then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, also a conservative Republican, brought down four secessionist flags at the Capitol in Montgomery.

Bentley compared the banner to the universally shunned symbols of Nazi Germany, a stunning reversal in a region where the Confederacy was formed 154 years ago and where Jefferson Davis was elected president. By Wednesday, the mayor in Memphis, Tennessee, was calling for the grave and statue of Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest to be removed from a city park.

Roof appears in photos with a Confederate license plate, waving a Confederate flag, burning and desecrating U.S. flags, posing at Confederate museums and with the wax figures of slaves on a website created in his name months before the attacks.

Attorney Boyd Young, who represents Roof’s family, issued a statement saying they will answer questions later, but want to allow the victims’ families to grieve. “We feel it would be inappropriate to say anything at this time other than that we are truly sorry for their loss,” the statement said.

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Associated Press Writer Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

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