COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — For five years, Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first minority governor, dismissed calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse lawn as a divisive issue far from her agenda.
In her 2010 campaign, she said the two-thirds legislative approval required to move the flag from its 30-foot perch was too high a hurdle to allow for real debate. When her re-election opponent called last fall for it to be removed, she branded it a desperate stunt.
None of that mattered, she said, after nine people were killed last month at a black church in Charleston, including its pastor, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, in a crime she called “pure hate.” When Haley arrived at the church, she found strangers hugging and weeping, and the grief was overwhelming.
At the June 19 bond hearing for suspected shooter Dylann Roof, the victims’ families offered him forgiveness. That night, Haley said, she made a decision.
“That flag needed to come down,” she told The Associated Press in an emotional interview Wednesday. “I could not look my kids in the face and justify that flag anymore.”
The surfacing of a website showing Roof holding Confederate flags alongside a racist manifesto deepened her resolve, she said.
“I could not have been more disgusted,” she said. “The flag didn’t kill those families, but let’s honor every person in South Carolina so no one drives by this Statehouse and feels pain.”
But Haley said nothing publicly for several more days, waiting as calls for the flag’s removal built, even among her fellow Republicans.
Before her announcement June 22, she met with legislators and community leaders, including Lonnie Randolph, president of South Carolina’s NAACP chapter, which has long fought to remove the flag.
Randolph said Haley had little choice. With the world watching, he said, “There was nowhere else to go.”
She then publicly called on legislators to send the battle flag to a museum.
“I give her credit for stepping out there and doing what’s right,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford who stood with Haley during the announcement. “I wish it had been done a long time ago.”
While the flag for many South Carolinians stands for noble traditions of history, heritage and ancestry, she said in her speech, for many others it’s a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
Lewis Gossett, president of the state Manufacturers Alliance, said he began speaking with his board members about pushing to bring the flag down following a memorial to the victims but didn’t notify Haley about it until after her announcement.
“The governor got out in front. I’m glad she did,” he said. “She helped define the issue in our terms and not somebody else’s.”
The next day, the Legislature agreed, by the required two-thirds majority, to add the issue to its special session. The debate begins Monday. The Manufacturers Alliance and state Chamber of Commerce have been encouraging legislators to remove the flag quickly.
Haley has spent much of the last week surrounded by grief as she attended funerals for all nine of the church shooting victims.
“These were good, honest, hard-working, God-fearing people who died because of hate,” she said.
She was struck, she said, by Cynthia Hurd’s life motto: Be kinder than necessary. She said she wakes up thinking of Ethel Lance’s favorite song, “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus.”
She took each funeral program home to tell her two children about each victim, she said.
“These people are forever ingrained in my soul — what they went through,” she said amid tears. “It will forever change the way I live my life. ... Every parent needs to understand we have a responsibility to show our children, because hate is not born. Hate is taught.”
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, grew up in the tiny town of Bamberg in the Sikh faith. She didn’t look like her classmates and went through hardships because of it, she said, but her parents wouldn’t let her complain.
“They always put the responsibility on me: ‘You have to show how you’re similar. Don’t let people define you as different,’” said Haley, who later converted to Christianity.
During her 2010 campaign, she eschewed questions about the historic nature of her candidacy. In the wake of the church shootings, she seems ready to discuss racial reconciliation in the state. She says she plans to visit schools to talk to children about the “Emanuel nine” and why the flag had to come down.
Since taking office, Haley said, a goal has been to change how people outside the state view South Carolina.
“There is nothing I could ever do as governor that did what those families did,” she said. “They have totally changed the perception by how they responded to this — through the love and care and forgiveness they’ve shown. That gives us hope. That gives us something to build on.”