In a speech Thursday afternoon before a trip to California, President Barack Obama gave a statement on the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., denouncing the "senseless murders" while also remembering the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church's long and embattled history.
"To say our thoughts and prayers are with [the victims] and their families and their community doesn't say enough to convey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel," the president said, speaking from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. "There's something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship."
The president, who used the church's pet name, "Mother Emanuel," recognized the historic building as "more than a church" in black history:
This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshippers worked to end slavery. 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. This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.
He also acknowledged the ugly racial overtones in the fact that the attack was on a black church: "This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals."
The president confirmed the presence of the FBI on the scene, adding that more of the "bureau's best" are on their way. He noted that the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, was in custody and said that he would "let the best of law enforcement do its work to make sure that justice is served."
Obama acknowledged that he was constrained from speaking much about the details during the ongoing investigation but added, "I don't need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise.
"I've had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We do not have all the facts, but we do know, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun," the president said, bringing up the seeming proliferation of armed violence in the country. "Now is 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. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency, and it is in our power to do something about it."
In wrapping up his speech, Obama invoked the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in memory of those four little black girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing almost 52 years ago in Birmingham, Ala.
"They say to each of us," Dr. King said, "black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution; they say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy, which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream, and if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair, to buoyancy of hope, transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace."
Rev. Pinckney and his congregation understood that spirit. Their Christian faith compelled them to reach out, not just to members of their congregation or to members of their own communities but to all in need. They opened their doors to strangers who might enter a church in search of healing or redemption. Mother Emanuel Church and its congregation have risen before, from flames, from an earthquake, from other dark times, to give hope to generations of Charlestonians, and with our prayers and our love and the buoyancy of hope, it will rise again now as place of peace.