A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston on Wednesday night, killing nine people in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. The shooter remained at large Thursday morning.
Police Chief Greg Mullen said he believed the attack at the Emanuel AME Church was a hate crime, and police were looking for a white male in his early 20s.
"The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate," said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley. "It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice. ... This is one hateful person."
The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the case prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras.
In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their families and decried violence on religious places.
"While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another," Haley said.
Soon after Wednesday night's shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street.
Community organizer Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.
"I am very tired of people telling me that I don't have the right to be angry," Cason said. "I am very angry right now."
Even before Scott's shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up better relationships.
The Emmanuel AME church is a historic African-American church that traces its roots to 1816, when several churches split from Charleston's Methodist Episcopal church.
One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.
The church's current pastor is state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Mullen would not say whether Pinckney was inside the church at the time of the shooting.
Mullen said there were some survivors, but he didn't say how many.