By Harriet McLeod
NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina took a small step toward healing the wounds of last week's massacre at a historic black church in Charleston as mourners gathered for the funeral of one of the nine victims.
Thursday's service for Ethel Lance, 70, the first to be held, comes days after some of the families of the slain black churchgoers offered unqualified forgiveness for the young white man accused of their murders.
"She was a victim of hate. She can be a symbol of love as she was in life. Hate is powerful but love is more powerful," Brandon Risher, Lance's oldest grandson, told the congregation.
Striking a chord with the power and grace of their words, the victims' families have sparked an intense dialogue across the U.S. South over the legacy of slavery and its symbols, centering on the Civil War-era battle flag of the Confederacy.
In the aftermath of the slayings, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and other Republicans reversed their position on flying the banner and are now calling for its removal from the State House grounds, saying it is divisive.
In Columbia, the state capital, supporters of the flag said the debate over its display played directly into the motives of the suspected gunman, who posed with the crimson-and-blue banner in photos on a website that included a racist screed.
"That flag did not start a race war. An idiot pulling the trigger on nine innocent people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina started this," said T. Leland Summers, commander of the state's division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, at a news conference in front of the flag.
The controversy has spread across the country, with politicians adding to the voices clamoring for the removal of Confederate symbols and names, and major retailers removing merchandise with Confederate images from stores and websites.
College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, a former South Carolina lieutenant governor and state senator who helped broker a compromise that relocated the flag from atop the state Capitol to a nearby monument, sees its removal as a sign of "goodwill to all those who may be offended by it."
He said he wanted to preserve names linked to the Confederacy on monuments, cemeteries, streets and buildings.
"This experience can mark the beginning of a new era," he said in a statement. "Let us all pledge to respect each other and stand together in firm opposition to any efforts to sanitize, rewrite or bulldoze our history."
In North Charleston, Lance's body, dressed in a glittering silver dress, was laid in an open casket at the front of Royal Missionary Baptist Church as mourners filed into the sanctuary.
In the same city, a white police officer was caught on video shooting to death an unarmed black man this year in an incident that shocked the country, one of a series of killings that have led to a national outcry over law enforcement's treatment of African Americans.
Last week's slaying of nine worshippers during a Bible study session at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has had a powerful impact nationwide, in part because of the apparent racist motivations of the suspect, Dylann Roof.
"You took something very precious away from me," Nadine Collier, one of Lance's four living children, told Roof at his first court appearance on Friday. "You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you."
Lance was a lifelong member of "Mother Emanuel," as the church is known to its parishioners.
Funeral services for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor and one of the nine victims, are scheduled for Friday in Charleston. President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy.
Outside the funeral chapel in North Charleston, a relative of Lance, James Fludd Sr., who lives on Edisto Island, South Carolina, said: "Everybody's staying prayerful."
In the foyer, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he would do his best to attend all nine funerals.
The mood in Charleston is somber, he said.
"There's some anger. I don't think we've really started healing. I see more outpouring of love and empathy and sympathy," he said.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by James Dalgleish)