CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Obama, paid tribute Friday (June 26) to the nine African-Americans who lost their lives at a church Bible study last week, saying "they were still living by faith when they died."
Delivering the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Obama praised the shooting victims, their families, and people across the nation for coming together to confront the consequences of a monstrous time.
The killer thought he would "deepen divisions" between the races, Obama said as a crowd of some 5,000 cheered and applauded. "Oh, but God works in mysterious ways."
Obama received a huge ovation from the congregants who gathered at a college basketball arena just around the corner from Emanuel AME Church, site of the June 17 shooting.
As first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, and other dignitaries looked on, Obama traced Pinckney's life as a man of the cloth and a state senator, lauding him as a "good man" who was "slain in his sanctuary."
Obama also read the names of the "good people" who died with their pastor, and told the families that "the nation shares in your grief."
A bipartisan congressional delegation also made the journey to Charleston, led byHouse Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner, who flew with Obama aboard Air Force One, said lawmakers want to "pay our respects to the families of the victims and express the condolences of the American people."
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also attended, receiving cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd.
"The world has come to you, to South Carolina," one speaker told the crowd.
As dawn broke Friday, hundreds of people began lining up along Charleston's Meeting Street near the basketball arena that hosted the service, as scores of security officers scoured the area.
"I've never seen a crowd like this line up for anything in Charleston," said Tasha Moseley, 42, a businesswoman who lives in the city.
"They are coming here not only to show their love and respect for Rev. Pinckney," she said. "It!'s also history. Our first African-American president is here."
The crowd packed the 5,100-seat TD Arena at the College of Charleston as a choir sang hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "The Lord Is My Light." The crowd repeatedly stood and cheered mentions of Rev. Pinckney and the other church members who lost their lives.
The June 17 crime stunned a nation that has seen its share of racial killings. Public anger rose with discovery of a website on which the accused assailant declared himself a white supremacist and posted pictures posing with the Confederate battle flag.
The accused, Dylann Roof, has been charged with nine counts of murder and could face the death penalty.
Given the public interest, the funeral service for Pinckney — a state senator as well as pastor of the Emanuel AME Church — has was moved to the college arena, right around the corner from the house of worship.
Police and security officers combed the area Thursday, preparing for the visit by the president and a host of federal and state officials.
In addition to delivering the eulogy, Obama will also meet privately with relatives of the shooting victims.
Obama has spoken of the nation's long-standing racial divisions before, on occasions ranging from the police shooting of a black teenager to the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
The nation's first African-American president has had two basic messages: The nation once divided over slavery has made undeniable progress in race relations over the years, but there is still a long way to go.
"When it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair," Obama said March 7 in Selma.
In the wake of last week's shootings, Obama will speak in a city of vivid cultural contrasts.
Charleston is where slave ships once unloaded human cargo, and where delegates to a special South Carolina convention voted in December 1860 to secede from the Union, helping to trigger the Civil War.
Today, it is a city of antebellum homes and world-class restaurants, a racially diverse area where blacks and whites have gathered throughout the week to condemn the church killings.
While Roof reportedly wanted to start a "race war," the church attack instead triggered a political backlash against the Confederate battle flag.
Lawmakers in South Carolina have called for removal of the flag from the State House grounds in Columbia, and there are similar calls about Confederate statues and memorials in other states as well. Numerous outlets have stopped selling Confederate memorabilia.
References to the proposed furling of the Confederate flag drew loud applause at Pinckney's funeral service.
The National Park Service is also calling on concessionaires to stop selling Confederate flags and related items — a request that presumably includes Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began and which sits in Charleston Harbor.
During the funeral service, Bishop John Richard Bryant said the killer did not understand that peoples' faith in God would enable them to overcome any anger over his actions.
"Someone should have told the young man," Bryant said. "He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place."
(David Jackson writes for USA Today.)