President Barack Obama said he knew some of those killed in Wednesday night’s shooting at a South Carolina church, including its pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, described fondly by friends and colleagues as a "giant."
"Michelle and I know several members of the Emanuel AME Church," Obama said on Thursday from the White House Press Room. "We knew their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney who, along with eight others, gathered in prayer and fellowship and was murdered last night. And to say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and their community doesn't say enough to convey the heartache and sadness and the anger that we feel."
Obama described the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as the violation of a "sacred place."
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"There’s something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace."
Obama said he and Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to express condolences.
"To say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and their community doesn't say enough to covey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel," Obama said.
Michelle Obama and her elder daughter visited Milan's Duomo cathedral on Thursday, where an official traveling with her said they lit candles in memory of the victims of the shooting. The first lady and Malia were seen by photographers entering the Gothic-inspired cathedral on the unannounced stop.
Pinckney was lauded on Thursday as "the best of the 46 of us in this chamber" as colleagues gathered in tribute near his black-draped desk in the state Capitol.
"He was a giant, a legend, a moral compass," fellow state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said on CNN Thursday morning.
A 19-year state legislator, Pinckney, 41, is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and two children, Eliana and Malana.
"What stood out more than his big frame and booming voice was his astronomical heart he had for his fellow man," said state Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler.
Just one year after graduating from Allen University in 1995, Pinckney became, at 23, the youngest African-American elected to the South Carolina Legislature. In 2000, he was elected to the state Senate.
He earned his masters of public administration from the University of South Carolina in 1999 and studied at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
A native of Beaufort, Pinckney began preaching at the age of 13 and was first appointed pastor at 18. He was named pastor of Mother Emanuel AME, an historic black church, in 2010, according to the state Democratic Party.
"He had a core not many of us have," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who sat beside him in Senate chambers. "I think of the irony that the most gentle of the 46 of us — the best of the 46 of us in this chamber — is the one who lost his life."
Senators walked into chambers together Thursday and gathered at the podium for a prayer. A vase of flowers sat on the black cloth draping Pinckney's desk.
Senators watched a video of Pinckney speaking at the podium after a former North Charleston police officer was charged with murder for fatally shooting an unarmed black man. Pinckney pushed for legislation helping law enforcement agencies statewide get body cameras. Setzler called Pinckney's April 14 speech "probably his finest moment in the South Carolina Senate."
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said Thursday the other victims have been identified as Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Sharonda Singleton; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.; and DePayne Doctor.
Sanders had recently graduated from Allen University. Hurd worked for Charleston County's library system for 31 years. Doctor was an enrollment counselor at Southern Wesleyan University's Charleston Campus, according to a friend.
Obama, appearing somber as well as frustrated, said he has had to make statements like the one he made on Thursday too many times. Despite not having all the facts, it was clear that innocent people had been killed because someone had no trouble getting a gun, Obama said.
"Now is the time for mourning and for healing, but let's be clear: at some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," Obama said.
"It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it," he said.
Obama, however, is unlikely to launch another push for gun control legislation with only one and a half years left in office and the next presidential campaign already in full swing.
The president also drew attention to the racial component of the shooting.
"The fact that this took place in a black church also raises questions about a dark part of our history," he said.
And the historical significance of Mother Emanuel was addressed by Obama.
"Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty," he said.
"This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery," Obama explained.
"When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps," he said. "This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America."
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