“We are reminded this morning about the freshness of death that comes like a thief in the night,” Reverend Norvel Goff told a mostly black congregation that swelled to about 400 people for a memorial service remembering those killed on Wednesday.
Inside the church, some wiped away tears and prayed as the organ played. Outside, a large, mostly white crowd gathered to show solidarity with those inside.
“It has been tough and rough and some of us have been downright angry. Now is a time for us to focus on the nine families. At this time we need to be in solidarity,” Goff said.
Armed police searched bags at the door of the church, home to the oldest African-American congregation in the southern US, and officers stood at intervals inside. In attendance were South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, senator Tim Scott, and the Charleston mayor, Joseph Riley.
The massacre has again trained a spotlight on the pervasive and divisive issues of race relations and gun crime in the US.
The suspect, Dylann Roof, was arrested on Thursday and has been charged with nine counts of murder. Authorities say he spent an hour in an evening Bible study group at the church, nicknamed “Mother Emanuel” for its key role in US black history, before opening fire.
Federal investigators were examining a racist manifesto apparently written by Roof that surfaced on a website on Saturday. The site featured photographs including one apparently of Roof with a Confederate flag, an emblem of the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War that ended in 1865, and white supremacist writings, as well as an “explanation” by the author for taking some unspecified action.
“I have no choice... I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country,” it said.
Riley, on CNN’s State of the Union, made a pitch for stricter gun control laws.
“It is insane the number of guns and the ease of getting guns in America,” Riley said. “It’s not that people should not carry guns and all of that, it’s just that there are so many of them and the ease of them and there is no accountability.”
President Barack Obama, in an interview taped on Friday, blamed the powerful gun-rights lobby group the National Rifle Association and an apathetic American public for the failure to implement new gun control measures.
After a school shooting in Connecticut in December 2012, Obama proposed more background checks for gun sales and pushed to ban more types of military-style assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines. But the measures failed to win passage in the U.S. Congress.
The church massacre has also renewed controversy around the Confederate flag, a symbol of Southern pride for some and an emblem of hatred for others.