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Mourners gather for funerals of Charleston massacre victims

Patricia Bailey prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 20, 2015, three days after a mass shooting which left nine people dead during a bible study at the church.     REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Patricia Bailey prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 20, 2015, three days after a mass shooting which left nine people dead during a bible study at the church. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Mourners gathered Thursday for the first funeral services for the nine African-Americans slain last week in a Charleston church by a white supremacist.

Hundreds filed past the open coffin of Ethel Lance, 71, at a funeral home in North Charleston, ahead of an afternoon service for Sharonda Singleton, 45.

They were among the bible study group that was targeted in the June 17 massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dylann Roof, 21, is charged with murder in connection with the multiple killing, which he reportedly hoped would trigger a race war between blacks and whites.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Friday’s funeral of another victim, Emanuel’s chief pastor Clementa Pinckney, 41.

On Wednesday, thousands filed past Pinckney’s open coffin at the South Carolina legislature in the state capital Columbia, where he had served as a senator.

President Barack Obama is to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston on Friday that is expected to draw several thousand mourners.

Services for the other victims are scheduled throughout the weekend and into next week.

Campaigns against the Confederate battle flag outside the South Carolina legislature meanwhile picked up steam Thursday.

Adding his voice to the movement was College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell, a former Republican lieutenant governor and avid Confederate battle re-enactor.

As a state senator, McConnell favored the positioning of the flag alongside a Confederate memorial on the State House grounds 15 years ago, he said.

– ‘A different time’ –

“Today is a different time,” he said, adding that the flag should come down “as a visible statement of courtesy and goodwill to all those who may be offended by it.”

Some revere the Civil War-era saltire as an emblem of Southern heritage, but others condemn it as a symbol of racial hatred and white supremacy.

Roof’s getaway car — he was arrested a day after the shooting in North Carolina — bore a Confederate license plate, and photos later emerged online of him brandishing the flag together with a handgun.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican with Tea Party support, has come out in favor of removing the flag, but the final decision hinges on a vote by the state legislature.

MoveOn.org, a left-leaning campaign group, said more than 600,000 people have signed more than 50 petitions hosted on its website against the flag.

In Washington, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said it was too early to say whether Roof is liable to federal civil rights charges.

A hate crimes investigation is unfolding, she said, but “it’s simply premature at this point to be able to announce” how Roof might be charged.

South Carolina has charged Roof with nine counts of murder, one for each victim. He remains in solitary confinement in a North Charleston jail.

Haley has said that she favors the death penalty for Roof if he is convicted.

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