As Riley spoke during a live interview from Charleston, the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was finishing preparations for its first Sunday service since the tragic church shooting Wednesday that left nine dead. The mayor added that his community will have, "sadly, nine funerals in the next couple of weeks" and that he hopes political activism resulting from the attack will wait so that the community can mourn.
"Nothing has happened in this community in my life like this…People are telling me they just can’t stop crying in the community. White people. Black people. The heartache is indescribable,” he said. “…We have to use this moment. Whatever it tells us. We’ve got to use this heartbreak in the most positive way.”
The mayor, who has made improving race relations the focus of his four-decade-long career in public service, has been a longtime advocate for removing the Confederate flag. But that question has been heavily fraught in South Carolina, where the flag's defenders say it represents Southern heritage and is not a racist symbol. Fifteen years ago, Riley joined 46,000 protesters in a march to demand that the flag be taken down from the capitol dome; as a compromise, the state legislature moved the flag from the capitol dome to another location on Statehouse grounds.
Riley also said that gun-control laws need to be revisited.
“The country is having a very difficult time dealing with the proliferation of guns. We have to use this most recent tragedy to keep us working on that. It is insane the number of guns and the ease of getting guns in America. It doesn’t fit with the other achievements in this country,” he said.
The mayor called those questions “pieces of unfinished business."
“What we have now is nine beautiful people…who were killed,” he said. “If we in America can’t use this as a reason to address these issues, then we’re not doing a very good job.”