(CNSNews.com) - "Obviously he's deranged. Probably a hate crime," civil rights activist Al Sharpton said Thursday morning of the young white man who shot and killed nine people at at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. Wednesday night.
A nationwide hunt is on for the suspect, and the city of Charleston is reeling. One of those killed was the pastor of the Mother Emanuel AME Church, S.C. State Sen. Clementa Pinkney.
"For he and eight people to be killed in a church -- I mean, what is sacred if we can't go to Bible study in a church? And I think what is so stunning and shocking about this is that this happens in a church. We're told by the one survivor that the man came in and sat down for a while," Sharpton told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"So obviously he's deranged. Probably a hate crime. But he has really done something that is not only appalling but frightening. And I think it is a time for all of us in this country to come together" (to deal with this kind of thing).
Press reports said the gunman released one woman so she could tell the world what happened. A five-year-old girl survived, reportedly by playing dead.
Police described the mass murder as a hate crime, and they released a blurry photograph of the suspected gunman early Thursday morning along with a photo of the black sedan he was believed to be driving.
First reports of the shooting came in around 9:05 p.m. Community members gathered for impromptu prayer circles near the church throughout the night.
Sharpton noted it's too soon to say if the killer belongs to any particular group or was acting on his own.
But, he added, "I think that we have got to deal with the fact that there's still hate groups in this country, against not only African Americans, but Jews and gays and others. And we've got to deal with it. And we've got to stop being afraid to confront what we've got to deal with.
"I was saying earlier...yesterday morning, I was elated, I'm in Washington watching the pres of the united st president of the United States install the first African American woman as attorney general -- hand on the Bible of Frederick Douglass. I go to bed last night hearing about this horrific hate crime in South Carolina. It shows where the country has gone and it shows where we still need to go, and we can't avoid it now."
Pinckney's cousin told reporters that she heard from a survivor that the gunman reloaded multiple times, explaining why he was shooting: The survivor quoted the gunman as saying, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country, and you have to go."
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. called the shooting "an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind."
"Of all cities, in Charleston, to have a horrible hateful person go into the church and kill people there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained," Riley said. "We are going to put our arms around that church and that church family."
In a statement, NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks condemned the shooting.
"There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture," Brooks said.
The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney was a sponsor of that bill.
In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their families and decried violence at religious institutions.
"We'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another," Haley said.
(The Associated Press contributed information contained in the latter half of this report.)