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Worshippers back at massacre church

Published 25/06/2015

South Carolina Highway Patrol honour guard stand over Senator Clementa Pinckneys body as members of the public file past in the Statehouse (AP)
South Carolina Highway Patrol honour guard stand over Senator Clementa Pinckneys body as members of the public file past in the Statehouse (AP)

Worshippers packed a church for Bible study a week after nine people were shot dead in a massacre that shocked the US.

They returned to Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Church hours after one of the victims, s tate senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was carried into the Statehouse where he served for nearly 20 years, to rest in honour in the South Carolina Rotunda.

His African-American congregation the returned to the scene of the killings, to show their faith and restore their sanctuary.

The shooting is creating waves of soul-searching that are reverberating far beyond the historic black church and the state Capitol where Mr Pinckney's widow and two young daughters met his horse-drawn carriage.

In state after state, the Confederate symbols embraced by the shooting suspect have suddenly come under official disrepute.

Governor Nikki Haley started the groundswell on Monday by calling on South Carolina politicians to debate taking down the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the Statehouse.

But Alabama's governor was able to act much more swiftly, issuing an executive order that brought down four secessionist flags yesterday.

In Montgomery, where the Confederacy was formed 154 years ago and where Jefferson Davis was elected president, Governor Robert Bentley, a conservative Republican, compared the banner to the universally shunned symbols of Nazi Germany, a stunning reversal in a region where the flag has played a huge cultural role.

The Confederate battle flag in particular "is offensive to some people because unfortunately, it's like the swastika; some people have adopted that as part of their hate-filled groups," Mr Bentley explained.

As mourners filed by Mr Pinckney's open casket, a makeshift drape over a huge second-floor window obscured the secessionist battle flag outside, only emphasising how quickly the symbol of Southern pride has fallen into official disrepute.

The 41-year-old Mr Pinckney was named lead pastor at "Mother Emanuel" in 2010. He arrived at the Statehouse as a page, and in 1997 became the youngest African-American member elected to the state House of Representatives at that time. He became a state senator in 2001.

Other conservative Republicans weighed in yesterday.

Both of Mississippi's US senators and a US representative endorsed removing the Confederate symbol from the stage flag, even though the state's voters decided to keep it back in 2001.

Other politicians and activists took aim at symbols including a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee's Senate, a sculpture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Rotunda and the vanity licence plates used by thousands of motorists.

Many said change is imperative after shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man, was charged with nine counts of murder.

Roof was captured after a motorist spotted his Confederate licence plate. Images on a website created in his name months before the attacks show him posing with the Confederate flag and burning and desecrating the US flag.

He also poses at Confederate museums, former slave plantations and slave graves.

Justice department officials are in agreement that the massacre satisfies the definition of a hate crime.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, while declining to discuss details, said that hate crimes are "the original domestic terrorism".

Businesses have also acted swiftly. Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears are among those saying Confederate merchandise will be gone from their stores and online sites. At least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the rebel battle flag.

And Warner Bros announced it will no longer licence toy cars and models of the "General Lee," car with the Confederate flag on its roof that starred in the 1980s TV show Dukes Of Hazzard.

For many, especially in the South, this is all happening too fast.

The few politicians openly defending the flag include Republican Jonathon Hill, a South Carolina representative who said it should remain above the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, and that addressing it now disrespects the victims' families.

"Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it's a very divisive issue," he said. "I think it could very well get ugly."

Other viewings and funerals for the shooting victims are scheduled over the next few days. through Monday. President Barack Obama plans to give a memorial to the victims tomorrow during Mr Pinckney's funeral at the College of Charleston.

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