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South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, centre, and Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, right, attend the funeral of shooting victim Ethel Lance last week in North Charleston.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As the leader of a city struggling with tragedy, Joseph Riley has tried his best to stay strong and keep his emotions in check. Until Wednesday, he had somehow succeeded. Then, as he was getting ready for work in the morning, he found himself suddenly in tears.

The past two weeks have tested Charleston and its popular mayor, who is 72 and has held office uninterrupted for an astonishing 39 years. On June 17, he was reading a book at home when, at about 9:30 p.m., the chief of police called. There had been a shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and there were fatalities.

Mr. Riley put on a jacket and tie – he knew the black clergy at the church would be properly dressed – and rushed to the scene.

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The time since has been an exhausting blur of funerals, vigils, phone calls and consolation visits, punctuated by "intermittent naps." The killings of nine people at the historic church thrust the mayor into the national and international spotlight. He has emerged as a steady, hopeful voice for a stricken city.

In interviews and speeches, he has spoken eloquently about Charleston's heartbreak and its inspiring show of unity in the aftermath of an act designed to divide the races.

Through it all, he said in an interview on Wednesday, he has done his best to hold it together. "As a leader, when you've got a tragic, difficult event, you have to exhibit confidence, resolve, courage, in-control to the community, as well as compassion, sorrow, all of that."

But when he went to the last of the victims' funerals on Tuesday, he felt his guard starting to come down. The three-hour service honoured retired pastor Daniel Simmons.

The next morning, while he was at home preparing to head out for his office, he found himself thinking about everything that had happened. He began to weep. Tears came again at his City Hall office as he wrote letters at his standing desk to people who had sent messages thanking him for his leadership and offering sympathy for Charleston's loss.

Mr. Riley says that with the funerals done and visits by national and state leaders coming to an end, he finally had time to reflect.

One thing he thought about was the goodness of those who died. The victims included a career-long librarian, an 87-year-old grandmother who sang in the choir and a speech pathologist who coached track.

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"You know there were nine really exceptional human beings, of different ages and different stations, but all so good, and then just … they were killed. It's just …" His voice trailed off.

The other thing he thought about was the community's response. The city saw no rioting after the attacks, no angry demonstrations. Instead, citizens, white and black, gathered at the church to pray and mourn together and formed a human chain of unity on a local bridge.

Charleston not only survived, he says, "we succeeded – well, more than succeeded. The citizens came alive in unity." The gunman "brought hate and division, we've got unity and life."

At a vigil just after the massacre of what locals now call the Charleston Nine, he said that the killer "miserably failed" to start a race war among the people of Charleston "because in our broken hearts we realize we love each other." The killer, he said "is on the wrong side of history," his ideas "in the dustbin of failed civilizations."

Mr. Riley looked pale and worn on Wednesday as he spoke from behind the broad desk in his chandeliered office at City Hall, an elegant 200-year-old edifice in the heart of this city of 120,000. Light flooded through the tall windows. A portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. hung on the wall.

Mr. Riley is a remarkable figure in the politics of the southern United States and a remarkable leader by any measure. A progressive Democrat in a mostly conservative Republican state, he turned the rundown historic downtown into one of the nation's top tourist destinations, smoothed frayed relations between black and white residents and marched on the state capitol to demand the removal of the Confederate flag. He is against the death penalty, even for the church killer, and wants stronger gun control.

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Twice his leadership has been tested by calamity. The first test came in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo roared through, toppling church steeples, tearing the roof off City Hall and flooding the streets. Mr. Riley became a nationally known personality, appearing in countless television interviews to vow that the city would recover.

The second came last month when a gunman walked into the famous local church, sat with parishioners for an hour of Bible study then opened fire with a handgun, killing six women and three men, including the church's pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney.

The 21-year-old charged with the crime, Dylann Roof, is a white man who had posted racist material online. All of the victims were black.

The racist attack seemed to strike at everything Mr. Riley has worked at since taking office on Dec. 15, 1975. The South then had just come out of the era of segregation and Mr. Riley spoke of the "alienation" in the city's black districts. He came to power with the help of black community leaders. White detractors labelled him "Little Black Joe."

Undeterred, Mr. Riley worked to get better housing and recreational space for black residents. In 1982, he hired the city's first black police chief. In 2000, he walked to Columbia, the state capital, on blistered feet to demand removal of a banner that he said for many had become a "flag of hate."

Fifteen years later, in the wake of the Charleston killings, South Carolina is at last moving to take down the Confederate flag from its staff on the statehouse grounds. Calls to remove Confederate symbols are echoing around the South.

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Mr. Riley's fight isn't over. He leaves office in January. One of his last missions is to push ahead with a planned $75-million museum of African-American history in Charleston.

Forty per cent of slaves brought to the United States from Africa passed through the port city, he said.

"We all know the story of the harsh voyage of the Mayflower," said Mr. Riley, who has a mop of white hair and the manner of a courtly southern lawyer. "We don't know the story of 882 slave ships coming to Charleston with human beings chained to the floor."

If "that evil man" had known about this part of American history, he said, referring to the killer, things might – just might – have been different.

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