Thousands lock arms in show of solidarity with victims of Charleston shooting

Thousands of people join hands and hold nine minutes of silence during the Unity March across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina.
Thousands of people join hands and hold nine minutes of silence during the Unity March across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina.PHOTO: EPA

CHARLESTON (AFP) - Several thousand people crowded onto one of the longest bridges in the Americas on Sunday and joined hands in a show of solidarity with the victims of the Charleston church massacre.

From Charleston to suburban Mount Pleasant, they formed a line across the Cooper River to forge what organisers called a Bridge to Peace Unity Chain nearly 4km long.

"It's not black lives that matter anymore. All lives matter," said Black Lives Matter leader Jay Johnson to loud cheers from a mainly white crowd before the event kicked off.

"We are united as the human race," he said, stripping off his thick dark Black Lives Matter sweatshirt in the early evening heat and humidity.

Promoted on social media, the event was organised in a matter of days by local housewives and the chief of Mount Pleasant's police department.

"This incredible turnout says it all," said organiser Dorsey Fairbairn at the event, where a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," a chaplain read a prayer, and vehicles crossing the span honked their horns in solidarity.

Once up on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge and holding hands, participants observed nine minutes of silence - one for each of the victims of Wednesday's bloodbath at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The span, named for a South Carolina politician who once described the NAACP civil rights group as mentally retarded, is the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

The mood was a joyful counterpoint to the somber atmosphere that loomed over a two-hour Sunday service at the historic African-American sanctuary earlier in the day.

A 21-year-old white male from South Carolina's interior, Dylann Roof, is charged with nine counts of murder in connection with the Emanuel church shooting, which he reportedly hoped would ignite racial conflict.

- Hold hands, sing songs -

Friends and families, both black and white, clapped hands and sang songs along bridge, took souvenir selfies and wrote condolence messages in chalk on the pavement.

They waved at a flotilla of small boats in the river below, hugged each other, exchanged high fives and lifted American flags into the breeze.

"This is how we do race riots in Charleston," quipped one man, using a dose of irony to sum up the cheerful mood.

The huge turnout contrasted with a protest at a park near the Emanuel church, billed as "a final burial of white supremacy," that attracted only about 40 people.

Speakers linked racism with social inequality, and complied when police asked demonstrators not to climb up onto a statue of an early 19th century South Carolina politician who endorsed slavery.

In another Charleston park Sunday, a memorial for Confederate veterans of the Civil War was found vandalized with red spray paint.

Charleston, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, abounds with references to the Confederacy.

But it is in the state capital Columbia that the Confederate flag flying at the legislature has become a focal point for protesters.

While some see the flag as an enduring banner of Southern heritage, others condemn it as a symbol of hate that should be relegated to a museum.