In a passionate speech Friday, the president of the NAACP called the shooting deaths of nine people at a historic black South Carolina church an "act of racial terrorism" and demanded that the Confederate flag that flies at the state Capitol be removed, calling it a "tool of hate."
"The fact that this shooting took place in a church, in a Bible study where the shooter asked for the pastor by name, it says to us that we have to examine the underlying racial animus and racial hate," Cornell William Brooks said at a news conference outside the office of the Charleston, S.C., chapter of the NAACP.
"This was not merely a mass shooting," he said, "not merely a matter of gun violence. This was a racial hate crime and must be confronted as such."
On Wednesday night, a gunman, identified by authorities as Dylann Storm Roof, 21, opened fire inside Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a preeminent symbol of the South's black faith community. Six women and three men were killed in the rampage at the church, also known as "Mother Emanuel."
Authorities say Roof sat among worshipers for nearly an hour, and that he chose a spot near the pastor leading the service, Clementa C. Pinckney, and shot him first.
Roof was arrested Thursday in Shelby, N.C., about 250 miles away, and has been charged with nine counts of murder and one count of possession of a firearm during a violent crime.
The shooting has resonated across the country in a year when race relations have been fraught after a series of violent episodes involving police and black citizens — including a white officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, in April in nearby North Charleston, S.C.
Brooks, who grew up in Georgetown, S.C., said the shooting hit close to home for him and was particularly shocking because it took place in a place of worship.
"This crime does not represent us," he said. "This is not who we are."
He said it was "morally incomprehensible" that "a stranger who was no doubt extended the hand of fellowship, the hand of welcome … could spend an hour in fellowship, an hour in study and then perhaps lay down a Bible and pick up a gun and lay down nine people into untimely graves."
Brooks repeatedly called the attack a hate crime and said it needs to be questioned whether the shooter was indoctrinated or inspired by others, whether he was acting on behalf of anyone.
"We have to ask ourselves the question, 'Is this the matter of a lone shooter with a singular hatred?'" asked Brooks, who last year took over the leadership of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such."
Roof's Facebook page, which has since been disabled, showed him wearing a dark jacket with the emblems of two flags from African countries when they were ruled by whites. One was from apartheid-era South Africa and the other was from white-dominated Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Brooks said that although people have been flooding into Charleston out of compassion and have prayed for the victims, an "atmosphere of hatred" continues to exist in the country alongside a "climate of caring and compassion." Brooks said he was angered by that juxtaposition.
He called for the Confederate flag flown on the state Capitol grounds in Columbia to be removed, saying it represented racial hatred.
Though "some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by," the flag is "lifted up as an emblem of hate and a tool of hate" and "an inspiration for violence."