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Obama leads tributes to pastor

Published 26/06/2015

Clergy members wait to enter the funeral service for Rev Clementa Pinckney. (AP)
Clergy members wait to enter the funeral service for Rev Clementa Pinckney. (AP)

President Barack Obama delivered a passionate discourse on America's racial history in his eulogy for a pastor slain in an attack on a historic African-American church.

"What a life Clementa Pinckney lived," Mr Obama said to rounds of applause. His church "was a sacred place," he said, "not just for blacks, or Christians, but for every American who cares about the expansion of liberty. ... That's what the church meant."

Thousands of mourners eagerly awaited Mr Obama's speech. The slayings inside the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston have prompted a sudden re-evaluation of the Civil War symbols that were invoked to assert white supremacy during the South's segregation era.

Mr Pinckney came from a long line of preachers and protesters who worked to expand voting rights across the South, Mr Obama said.

"We do not know whether the killer of Rev Pinckney knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs, and arsons, and shots fired at these churches; not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorise and oppress," the president said.

"It was an act that he imagined would incite fear, and incrimination, violence and suspicion. An act he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin," Mr Obama said.

"Oh, but God works in mysterious ways," he proclaimed and the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation. "God has different ideas."

Mr Obama then spoke plainly about the ugliness of America's racial history - from slavery to the many ways that minorities have been deprived of equal rights in recent times. Removing the Confederate battle flag from places of honour is a righteous step toward justice, he said.

"By taking down that flag, we express God's grace. But I don't think God wants us to stop there," Mr Obama said.

The president wrapped up in song, belting out the first chorus of "Amazing Grace," as the choir and organist joined in. America's first black president sang this spiritual, less than a mile from the spot where thousands of slaves were sold and where South Carolina signed its pact to leave the union a century and a half earlier.

Justice Department officials broadly agree that the shootings inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church meet the legal requirements for a hate crime, meaning federal charges are likely.

Mr Pinckney's cousin, Donald Sheftal, said the pastor was a great man, but the others who died with him were great, too, and no one should forget what their deaths have already accomplished.

"Let us remember the sacrifice of the nine that moved the governor to call for the removal of the flag and brought the president to Charleston," he said.

The revelation that Dylann Storm Roof, the suspect in the shooting, had embraced Confederate symbols before the attack, posing with the rebel battle flag and burning the US flag in photos posted online, prompted a stunning turnaround on symbols that have played a large role in Southern identity.

The governor of South Carolina asked lawmakers to bring down the flag outside South Carolina's Statehouse.

Some have worried about people taking matters into their own hands.

The phrase "Black Lives Matter," at the centre of a nationwide campaign for racial justice, has been spray-painted on monuments around the South. Police are also investigating arson attacks against two African-American churches in the south.

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