The horror began with a late-night text from her chief of staff, then a phone call from the State Law Enforcement Division’s head. There had been a shooting at a Charleston church.
It was Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s church. Multiple people had been shot.
Gov. Nikki Haley quickly hung up.
“And then I called Sen. Pinckney.” She left a voice mail he never heard. “This is Nikki. I’ve heard about the shooting. I’m sending my full SLED team down there. Call me.”
Throughout the night, until 4:30 a.m., she spoke with SLED Chief Mark Keel as sickening details emerged. Each call “was one more kick in the gut,” she recalls.
After learning that Pinckney was dead, along with eight other worshippers, the state’s first female governor stepped into her two children’s bedrooms, quiet and peaceful at dawn, to tell them she was leaving — and why. Her husband, Michael, was gone for military training.
Then she walked through the doggy gate at the top of the Governor’s Mansion staircase, past formal portraits of President
Andrew Jackson and various governors hanging above her own family snapshots, and past her son’s basketball hoop in the flower-lined driveway. About 8:30 a.m., Haley boarded her state airplane to fly to the Holy City, the site of the nation’s most recent massacre in a house of worship since a white supremacist killed six Wisconsin Sikhs, the faith of her parents.
The plane was headed toward a nightmare in Charleston, that much she knew.
But Haley didn’t yet realize that she also was launching into a new season of her own life. It would force her to shift from a publicly guarded, often rehearsed, on-message partisan to a very human, deeply grieving governor trying to heal a diverse and wounded flock.
With the killer at large, dense heat draped over a command center set up near the historic Emanuel AME Church, an elegant white building on bustling Calhoun Street. First responders, expressions blank with shock and exhaustion, gathered with hundreds of others when Haley arrived early Thursday morning.
Amid the gloom, a piece of good news emerged.
The church’s security camera captured a quality image of the likely shooter, a young white man with a bowl cut, and of his car. At 9 a.m., Haley predicted police would capture him by noon. “And we did.”
Keel wanted to get his suspect back to town as soon as possible. But police had arrested 21-year-old Dylann Roof a good 250 miles away at the North Carolina border, and the SLED chief had no plane available.
“Take mine,” Haley offered.
That evening, when Haley re-boarded the plane, she stepped toward where Roof had sat, forcing her feet forward.
He’d been right there.
Until then, she’d focused on catching the suspect.
Now, with him in custody, she had to lead a grieving state. Satellite TV trucks, hot lights and cameras on, engines rumbling, massed across from the church where memorials formed and crowds gathered to cry and pray.
A news conference loomed with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Police Chief Greg Mullen.
Details were leaking into the public about what happened at that Bible study, around the circular tables, amid the Bibles and prayers. Names of the dead sifted out. So did news of survivors, including a little girl, who had played dead.
“My head was blank,” Haley says.
She knew details the public didn’t know. They were bad. Details about hate, racial hate, that fueled the killings.
“All I kept thinking is I need to protect the state. And I didn’t know how.”
With Chief Mullen standing to her right, Mayor Riley to her left, Haley stepped up to a lectern, a woman surrounded by men, her typical set-up.
Then, before a bank of microphones, something changed.
“We woke up today ...” she said. And she paused. Her voiced quivered. Her eyes glanced down as if looking for notes that weren’t there. A deeply hurting side of Nikki Haley seeped out as she continued, tears forming.
“The heart and soul of South Carolina was broken. And so we have some grieving to do,” she managed. “We’ve got some pain we’ve got to go through. Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe — and that’s not something we ever thought we’d deal with.”
Local and national media aired her words live. People watched, seeing a Nikki Haley who looked as vulnerable as they felt.
The governor, however, didn’t see it that way.
Haley was raised by a tough mother, a lawyer from India who couldn’t take a judgeship position because her family considered it inappropriate for a woman. Raj Randhawa taught that there were no tears when kids in Bamberg teased the small town’s only Indian family. Get things done, she warned, don’t cry about them.
Working in a man’s political world only reinforced Haley’s need to appear determined, not emotional.
“Women political leaders have to navigate appearing tough enough to do the job as expected and human enough to be ‘liked’ — all thanks to prevailing gender stereotypes,” says Lynne Ford, a political science professor and associate vice president at the College of Charleston who researches women in politics.
That’s especially true, Ford adds, for female politicians like Haley who focus on stereotypical “male” policy areas such as jobs and economic development.
And here was Haley, crying on national TV.
“I was disappointed in myself after the press conference,” she concedes. “But with the heaviness of the moment, I was devastated. I knew the state was devastated, and I knew this was going to hurt.”
Haley knew early on that she’d attend every funeral, even speaking at them when asked. She wanted each family to feel the state’s embrace of support.
“And I felt the need to go for me,” she says during a rare moment of quiet in a sitting room at the Governor’s Mansion.
Haley wanted to know the nine beyond a list of names.
“I had a need to meet them. I had a need to know, because I knew the forensic story. I knew the investigative part of the story. I needed to know the people.”
Through each funeral, she met them.
She learned Cynthia Hurd’s motto was to be kinder than necessary. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton inspired kids daily. And Ethel Lance, whose daughter died three years ago, sang a certain song around her house and throughout her days to cope.
“One day at a time sweet Jesus. That’s all I’m asking from you.”
Then there was Pinckney, the one victim Haley had known.
She doesn’t claim a close relationship with the pastor and politician. But she knew he was a man who understood the power of his voice, deep and commanding as it was. He didn’t take the Senate podium often. So when he did, people listened.
At his funeral, after reading over a letter from Pinckney’s wife and poems from his daughters, after talking with the Emanuel AME church family, Haley met a different side of the man.
“I knew Sen. Pinckney,” she says. “I’m now more thankful that I know Rev. Pinckney.”
At each funeral, she made a point to apologize to families for the slayings happening on her watch. That sense of responsibility rubs a still-raw nerve. She tears up and pauses, to breathe, to think.
“When you’re a governor,” she says, “you feel like you have to protect your people. And so when something like this happens, it’s just painful because, I mean, it happened on my watch.”
She pauses again.
“I had to find a way to kind of put my arms around the people of the state and lift them up. And I didn’t know how to lift myself up.”
Today, Haley cannot pinpoint any real conversation among lawmakers before the massacre about bringing down the Confederate flag. Most remembered the brutal politics of the 2000 compromise. And didn’t care to relive those days.
Removing the flag didn’t feel like an option. So she focused on other things.
Then came June 17, followed by photos of the accused killer clutching a Confederate flag. Press coverage quickly zeroed in on the flag, gun control and hate crime legislation as possible policy solutions. One gnawed at the governor’s grief.
Her husband, a combat veteran, had been gone for three weeks of military training when the shooting happened. The Friday after, she texted him: “I need to talk to you when we get home. I’ve got some things in my head, and I just need to know if I’m thinking right.”
The Confederate flag needed to come down. And it needed to happen swiftly to avoid a divided South Carolina until the General Assembly reconvened in January and to keep divisive out-of-state forces from coming in.
On Monday, Haley held four meetings: with key Republicans, Democrats, civic leaders and the state’s federal delegation.
“I’m going to have a press conference at 4,” she told each group.
That was just a few hours away.
“If you would stand with me, I would be forever grateful. And if you choose not to stand with me, I hold no ill will, and I respect you, and I will never let anybody know that you were in this room.”
As the clock ticked, she wondered who would show up.
Just after 4 p.m., she stood in the Statehouse lobby flanked by Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, a white man, and Tim Scott, a black man. She also stood with U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, a black Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a white Republican.
Notable surprises included a handful of Republicans from particularly conservative state districts and S.C. Sen. Paul Thurmond, son of one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond.
Hordes of news cameras watched. Haley stepped forward, voice firm again.
“My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move our state forward in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven,” she said, noting her power to keep lawmakers in Columbia.
“I will use that authority for the purpose of the Legislature removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds,” she added.
The state Senate swiftly passed a bill to lower the flag. But momentum stalled in the House where some Republicans balked at removing a symbol of a heritage that they and many constituents so deeply value.
Black House members, however, spoke about how much the flag hurt them. And Haley understood. As the debate heightened, she met privately with the Republican caucus.
“I told them they had not heard me talk a lot about race, but I wanted them to know a story.”
The story was about a little girl who had ridden with her father from their hometown of Bamberg to the state capital. From a rural town of 2,500, it was a big deal. On the way home, they stopped by a farmer’s stand on the roadside. Her dad filled a basket.
A young Nikki Randhawa, a grade-schooler, glanced at the cash register. The owner looked nervous. And picked up a phone. “Next thing I knew, two police cars raced right up and stood right next to them at the register,” she recalls.
Her father, a tall and graceful Indian immigrant, always wore the distinctive turban of his Sikh faith, which teaches equality of all people before God, despite the stares it evoked. He walked over and shook the owner’s hand, said hello and paid for his produce. He said thank you.
On the 45-minute ride home, he didn’t say a word. He hoped his daughter hadn’t seen it. But she had. And she understood.
“I will never forget that moment,” she said.
Haley told the caucus: South Carolina is better today than it was then. There is no more Miss Black Bamberg and Miss White Bamberg, and the Indian girl no longer would be disqualified for being brown as happened to a young Haley and her sister.
“But I have to pass that farmer’s stand every time I go to the airport,” she said. “And every time I pass it I feel pain.”
Such are symbols and what they represent.
“I reminded them that the Statehouse belongs to everybody,” she says, her voice softening again. “And no child should drive by the Statehouse and feel pain.”
Instead of strong-arming, she expressed her love for the state and her respect for those determined to treat the flag with dignity.
“She shined,” says Rep. Rick Quinn, a Cayce Republican who’s worked with five governors and introduced an amendment to the flag bill that launched hours of debate. “That encouragement to members made them say maybe we do have a path of mutual respect here.”
In the end, 129 senators and representatives voted to remove the flag. Just 30 in both chambers voted no.
Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, stalwart of liberal Democratic politics, wrote in a Rainbow PUSH Coalition mass email last week: “It came because of the leadership and courage of the governor, Nikki Haley, who stood up and spoke out in the wake of the horror, calling on the legislature to take the flag down.”
A lot of others were watching too, especially the national press.
Could South Carolina, birthplace of the Civil War, home to the nation’s largest slave port, lead the nation in racial healing? Add to that story line an Indian, Sikh-born female Republican governor at the helm, and Haley’s staff fielded endless calls and watched TV trucks encircle the Statehouse.
Already, after riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, South Carolina had remained comparatively peaceful in April when a white police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man running from him. Protests didn’t turn violent. Instead, state lawmakers passed the nation’s first bill requiring police to wear body cameras.
Sen. Pinckney called the bill “our No. 1 priority.”
Then came the nine Emanuel AME Church killings, followed by the very public forgiveness offered by black families devastated by a racist white man’s actions.
“This was an enormous amount of love that the country hadn’t witnessed in a long time,” Haley says.
And, finally, down came the flag, carried away by a black state trooper after more than two-thirds of the General Assembly voted to move it to a museum, the Confederate Relic Room. With 10,000 people on hand to bear witness, no violence disturbed the historic moment.
The flag, Haley warns, is a start and not an end. “The flag didn’t kill those nine people. The flag’s not going to make the hurt go away,” she says.
A minority woman in a white man’s party, she knows this first-hand.
Small towns often possess a certain fickle nature, one that can welcome and exclude in the same collective breath.
Haley’s parents, both educated and raised amid affluence in India, found no one would rent to them when they first moved to Bamberg in 1969. Her father, Ajit Randhawa, had taken a biology professor post at nearby Voorhees College, an historically black college.
When the family finally found a place, the owner said they couldn’t entertain blacks, Haley wrote in her autobiography, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” Like many southern towns, Bamberg was a town divided by railroad tracks that separated whites and blacks. “We weren’t dark enough to be black or pale enough to be white,” she wrote.
As an elementary student, Haley had to play Pocahontas in a school play. She wanted to be a Pilgrim.
Then on a kickball field one day, she found her classmates divided into teams by race.
“You have to pick. Which one are you?” the kids said.
Haley was confused. “Well, I’m brown.”
She was so bullied in third grade, her dad went to talk with her teacher. Her mom spoke to her class about India, about why men wear turbans and why women wear saris. She brought Indian snacks.
The Randhawas said their job was to educate others, not resent them. It helped, and many of Haley’s bullies became friends. But it was hard. It’s still hard. A few national reporters covering the Emanuel AME Church shootings called her an immigrant even though she was born in Bamberg.
“I still feel like that kid in survival mode who has to focus on bringing people together and similarities and how we’re more similar than different,” Haley says.
It doesn’t help that a white Republican once called her a “rag head” and a black Democrat dubbed her “a conservative with a tan.” She remains, in many minds, an “other.” She’s still the girl whose family couldn’t walk into a restaurant without everyone staring and whispering.
“It has never stopped,” she says. “But this is a better South Carolina than it was when I was growing up, and my prayer is that it is a better South Carolina for my children when they are in my position with their own children.”
Because in her heart, she’s still the little girl whose father walked tall with his turban. Yet, when she campaigned, he also stood in back corners to avoid hurting her chances of winning.
“I know what that pain feels like,” she adds. “You can’t change how you’re born. You can’t change who you’re born from. And you should be proud. Every person should be proud of who their parents are and who they’ve come from.”
In his eulogy to Pinckney, President Barack Obama noted: “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.”
It echoed what many of the faithful were thinking given the love born from such murderous hate. Haley, who converted to Christianity as an adult, says she doesn’t question God, not even after the loss of nine people gathered to study the Gospel.
“I see how so many things have happened because of those nine people,” she says. “It’s hard not to say, ‘Wow, God chose them, those nine,’ and how they must be upstairs smiling right now, looking down on all that they did.”
And all that still could be done.
From here, Haley wants to lead a statewide conversation about race. It too will hurt, with the flag’s removal so fresh and the wounds of racism so deeply festering.
“You’ve got a lot of people who feel betrayed (because) that flag came down,” she says. “We’ve got some healing to do. It’s not over.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.