Charleston mourns church massacre victims

Mourners release doves over the casket holding church shooting victim Ethel Lance.
Mourners release doves over the casket holding church shooting victim Ethel Lance.AFP

CHARLESTON, United States (AFP) - Mourners held the first funeral services on Thursday for the nine African-Americans slain last week in a Charleston church by a white supremacist.

Hundreds filed past the open coffin of Ethel Lance, 70, at a funeral home in North Charleston, ahead of an afternoon service for Sharonda Singleton, 45.

The deceased were among the bible study group that was targeted in the June 17 massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dylann Roof, 21, is charged with murder in connection with the multiple killing, which he reportedly hoped would trigger a race war between blacks and whites.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Friday's funeral of another victim, Emanuel's chief pastor Clementa Pinckney, 41.

Emotions ran high at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church as friends and relatives bid a final farewell to Lance, a custodian at a Charleston arts centre.

"I am here to tell you that we are stronger because we are together as a community," Reverend Norvell Goff told the mourners, the local Post and Courier newspaper reported.

Lance was later laid to rest at the Emanuel cemetery, where her children and grandchildren kissed her coffin and well-wishers threw roses into her grave.

Singleton, a speech pathologist, high school track coach and pastor at Emanuel, was remembered by a capacity crowd at the 2,000-seat Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.

"She believed she could change every child," said South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who attended both funeral services.

Seen in the pews were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two of the most recognizable civil rights activists in the United States today.

THOUSANDS PAY RESPECTS

On Wednesday, thousands filed past Pinckney's open coffin at the South Carolina legislature in the state capital Columbia, where he had served as a senator.

President Barack Obama is to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral in Charleston on Friday that is expected to draw several thousand mourners.

Services for the other victims are scheduled throughout the weekend and into next week.

Meanwhile, the campaign against the Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina legislature, picked up steam.

Adding his voice to the movement was College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell, a former Republican lieutenant governor and avid Civil War battle re-enactor.

As a state senator, McConnell favored the positioning of the flag alongside a Confederate memorial on the State House grounds 15 years ago, he said.

"Today is a different time," he said, adding that the flag should come down as a "statement of courtesy and goodwill to all those who may be offended by it."

Some revere the Civil War-era saltire as an emblem of Southern heritage, but others condemn it as a symbol of racial hatred and white supremacy.

Roof's getaway car - he was arrested a day after the shooting in North Carolina - bore a Confederate licence plate, and photos later emerged online of him brandishing the flag together with a handgun.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican with Tea Party support, has come out in favor of removing the flag, but the final decision hinges on a vote by the state legislature.

PROLIFERATION OF PETITIONS

MoveOn.org, a left-leaning campaign group, said more than 600,000 people have signed more than 50 petitions hosted on its website against the flag.

In Washington, US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch said it was too early to say whether Roof is liable to federal civil rights charges.

A hate crimes investigation is unfolding, she said, but "it's simply premature at this point to be able to announce" how Roof might be charged.

South Carolina has charged Roof with nine counts of murder, one for each victim. He remains in solitary confinement in a North Charleston jail.

Haley has said that she favours the death penalty for Roof if he is convicted.