CHARLESTON, S.C. — Ethel Lance — a God-fearing woman and the sweetest of grandmothers, according to those who knew her — was laid to rest Thursday as Charleston began burying the nine people slain last week by a gunman in this city’s Emanuel AME Church.
Lance, 70, was dressed in a pale blue sequined gown, her reading glasses clutched in her left hand, as she lay in a gold-trimmed casket covered by sprays of white roses. Hundreds of people lined up in the steamy heat to pay their last respects, filing down the center aisle of Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
One by one, they stood at the casket and prayed. “Mama! Mama!” wailed a woman in a black sheath dress, who leaned heavily on another mourner for support.
The service for Lance marked the start of a procession of burials to take place over the next week. Hours after Lance’s funeral, mourners gathered to pay tribute to Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a 45-year-old mother of three who worked as a speech pathologist, a motivational speaker and a girls’ track-and-field coach at Goose Creek High School.
And on Friday, Charleston will bury the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and Emanuel AME’s charismatic pastor. President Obama is to deliver the eulogy at the ceremony, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. Vice President Biden, House Speaker John A. Boehner and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton also will attend the service.
The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist who announced that he wanted to kill black people, remained in custody Thursday.
In a different venue, his family also paid tribute to the dead.
“We would like to take this time to reflect on the victims and give their families time to grieve,” Roof’s family said in a written statement released by their lawyer, Boyd Young. “We ask that right now, care and attention and support be given to the grieving family members of the victims.”
The statement said that the family would, in time, try to answer the “many questions asked regarding the story behind the tragic shooting. . . . Rest assured, in the coming days, as more information becomes available, we will do our best to answer them.”
Meanwhile, in Columbia, the state capital, a group representing the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans also paid tribute to the victims of the shooting at a news conference outside the state capitol. Leland Summers, the group’s commander, read off the names of the three men and six women who died in the shooting at Emanuel AME. He said he had no doubt they had welcomed the gunman into their Bible study with open arms.
“They extended the right hand of fellowship to him, because that is what God taught them to do,” Leland said.
Although Leland said he did not want to get into a debate about the Confederate flag, he did defend the banner, which has become the focus of intense discussion since the discovery of a Web site in which Roof is pictured holding a gun and a Confederate flag. Across the South, calls have risen for state officials to take down the flag and other Confederate imagery, starting with the banner that flies on the South Carolina state capitol grounds.
Leland said the banner honors Confederate soldiers and does not symbolize hatred.
In the churches of North Charleston, however, the debate over the flag was pushed aside to make room for memories of the victims. The tribute to Lance began Wednesday night, when hundreds of mourners lined up outside Royal Missionary Baptist Church to attend a wake. Lance had five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Her granddaughter Najee Washington, 23, said Lance was “the heart of the family. She was beautiful inside and out.”
At the funeral Thursday, the Rev. Norvell Goff Sr. said Lance “was at church seven days a week. If God gave us eight days, I believe she would have been there eight. Mother Emanuel was in her soul.”
Lance was the church sexton; she held the keys. “Last Wednesday, Jesus called Ethel by her name,” Goff said. “He said, ‘Ethel, give me your keys.’ ”
During the service, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) sat in the front row next to Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. (D).
From the pulpit, Haley told of growing up in small- town South Carolina, the child of Indian immigrants. Her mother wore a sari, she said, her father a turban. “I wasn’t white enough to be white. And I wasn’t black enough to be black. I never fit in. When I would go home, my mom would say, ‘Don’t focus only on differences.’ ”
As she left the pulpit, Haley stopped to hug the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Sharpton, who spoke before Haley, told the congregation that he had shaken the Republican governor’s hand. “Usually, she would look out her window and see me marching,” he joked.
Haley responded that “if you were protesting out my window, if you would have come inside, I would’ve hugged you.”
“I will be back, ” Sharpton yelled.
“I will hug you,” Haley responded.
Hours later, Haley, Riley and other dignitaries trekked to Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church to remember Coleman-Singleton, a minister on staff at Emanuel, where she served Holy Communion and baptized children.
As the funeral director slowly closed her casket, a soloist sang a powerful rendition of “How I Got Over.” Then a representative from Emanuel AME read a resolution honoring Coleman-Singleton. “She preached with a fire that touched our souls, and she was filled with the Holy Ghost,” the resolution said.
From the pulpit, Riley, the Charleston mayor, said that although Coleman-Singleton’s killer had acted in hatred, the city was responding with grace.
“Last week, a delusional young man came into the church filled with hate, and the reaction was love,” Riley said. “He came into the church with a mentality of division, and he increased unity. . . . He came in with symbols . . . and that hateful battle flag at the capitol is coming down.”