WATCH: Obama sings 'Amazing Grace' at funeral of slain pastor
An impassioned President Barack Obama led thousands of mourners in singing "Amazing Grace" on Friday at the funeral of a slain pastor in Charleston and urged Americans to eliminate symbols of oppression and racism, including the Confederate battle flag.
In a speech likely to be considered one of the most memorable of his presidency, Obama paid an emotional tribute to the nine people shot to death at the church and pleaded for Americans to use the tragedy as a way to bridge racial divide.
The shootings last week sparked an intense dialogue over the legacy of slavery and its symbols after photos of the white man charged in the shooting surfaced showing him posing with the Confederate flag and apparently posting a racist manifesto online.
Politicians and businesses quickly scrambled to distance themselves from the Civil War-era battle flag of the Confederacy amid calls for the flag to be lowered from the grounds of South Carolina's State House.
Obama called the flag "a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."
"For too long we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens," Obama said in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
Obama led the crowd of around 5,500 people gathered in a college arena in singing "Amazing Grace," a hymn often associated with African-American struggles.
Obama read out the names of all the nine Charleston victims. The cadence of his speech was more like that of a sermon than an address and it was laced with religious meaning.
KILLING WAS PERSONAL
The Charleston killings touched three issues close to Obama's heart: gun control, race and a personal connection to Pinckney, a state senator who he met while campaigning for the White House in the 2008 election.
As the first black president, Obama's election raised hopes that the United States was moving beyond racism but the Charleston shooting was another reminder to him and the country that the issue is still toxic.
"Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realise it," Obama said on Friday.
The Department of Justice has opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting.
The Democratic president failed in 2013 in a high-profile effort to have Congress tighten gun laws after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed.
"For too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation," he said on Friday. "The vast majority of Americans want to do something about this. . .We see that now," he said.
He made frequent reference to God's grace and the Charleston alleged killer Dylann Roof's failure to sew bitterness, as witnessed by the forgiveness shown by the victims' families.