Wednesday's mass shooting at the almost 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church comes after a year of turmoil and protests over race relations, policing and criminal justice in the United States. A series of police killings of unarmed black men has sparked a renewed civil rights movement under the ‘Black Lives Matter' banner.
“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history,” said President Barack Obama. “Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
Federal authorities said they would investigate the shooting as a hate crime. The U.S. Department of Justice said the investigation — which involves the department's civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina — will be “parallel to and cooperative with the state's investigation.”
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who said he believes the incident was a hate crime, told reporters at a morning news conference that the entire city of Charleston was grieving.
“This tragedy that we’re addressing right now is indescribable,” Mullen said before Roof's arrest. “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives,” he added.
Roof sat with churchgoers for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Mullen said. Among those killed was the church's current pastor, a state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Roof reloaded five times, even as victims pleaded with him to stop, according to a relative of Pinckney's.
Carson Cowles, Roof's uncle, told law enforcement officials on Thursday that he recognized Roof in a photo released by police and noted that Roof's father gave him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday this year.
Images on social media on Thursday showed Roof displaying symbols commonly associated with racist and white-dominant governing systems. In one photo from his Facebook account, Roof is wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), governments that enforced systems of racial separation and white privilege.
In another picture, shared by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group, Roof is sitting on the hood of a car with a plate commemorating the Confederate States of America.
Dalton Tyler, Root’s roommate who spoke with ABC News, said that the shooter had been “planning something like that for six months.”
“He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler said. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”