COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley was home when she got the call.
It was just after 9 p.m. on June 17 and her staffer wanted to inform her of a shooting that had taken place in Charleston.
A subsequent call with State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel provided Haley with more information: it was Emanuel AME Church, the place of worship of one of South Carolina’s most loved legislators.
“At that point I got on the phone and I called Sen. (Clementa) Pinckney,” Haley recalled on Thursday. “I said, ‘Sen. Pinckney, we just heard about the shooting at your church. We have SLED and their entire team headed that way. Please call me, let me know what you need, what the families need. We will come down there. We will do whatever we need to do and help in any way that I can.’ ”
“I just didn’t realize at the time that he would never get the call,” Haley said.
Pinckney, the church’s pastor, was among nine killed that night. His phone likely ran out of space for voice messages. As word spread of the shooting, his colleagues in both chambers called to leave him messages while others frantically texted him to see if he was OK.
But Pinckney’s life had been taken by suspected gunman Dylann Roof, 21, a Midlands man who had decided he wanted to start a race war. The days that followed would forever change South Carolina — and Haley. As the Palmetto State mourned, the nation closely followed as every single fallen faithful was laid to rest.
“All nine of those funerals have forever changed me,” Haley said. “I wanted to be at each and every one of them. I needed to be able to say I was sorry.”
When it became known that Roof allegedly targeted the church because of its race-related history, the national media began to pound on Haley’s staff. They wanted her to answer whether it was time for the Confederate Flag to come down.
But Haley continually stressed it just wasn’t the time to have the discussion. The state first needed to grieve.
Meanwhile, a manifesto that law enforcement has said is Roof’s became public. It was riddled with images of Roof standing with the Confederate flag, burning Old Glory, and it had hate-filled message.
That’s when state GOP Party Chairman Matt Moore said he felt like the time had come for the battle flag to come down from the front of the Statehouse.
“I felt strongly convicted on Friday morning, so much so that I kind of had to hold myself back because you don’t want to skip ahead of your elected officials” Moore said. “It just made common sense and moral sense to move the flag.”
Haley said there was no magical moment when she realized the flag needed to come down. Almost immediately after the shooting she said she was flooded with questions on whether the state should address gun control, the battle flag and mental health.
She said had already made the decision that the flag needed to come down, before she saw Roof’s manifesto. But once she was back home in Columbia, and had been able to chat with her husband, Michael, she was sure of it.
Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said he walked into Haley’s office on June 22 expecting her to say that they needed to reach a compromise with the flag. Instead, he said he was surprised to hear her say that the flag just needed to come down — period.
“She’s the head of the Republican Party in South Carolina,” Harrison said. “Having her come out, and come out in a forceful way, paved the way for the other Republicans in the state.”
With the nation’s eyes on Charleston, Haley — flanked by local, state and federal legislators — called on the removal of the battle flag later that day. Lawmakers, business leaders and other politicos would quickly follow suit.
Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, was among them.
“The time is long overdue for it to be removed once and for all,” Gossett said in a written statement. “We know this one act will not bring those souls back home to us. We know it will not heal all of our wounds or remove all of our differences. It will, however, make a strong statement about the kind of state we want for our families and for future generations.”
President and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce Ted Pitts also joined the call.
“In 2000, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce led the effort in support of removing the Confederate flag from the State House dome,” Pitts said. “The business community got involved then for the same reason the Chamber supports the call for action today. Simply, it is the right thing to do for our state and its people. It’s also the right thing to do for business.”
On Monday, the legislature will return to Columbia to tackle gubernatorial vetoes and bills that would furl the Statehouse’s Confederate battle flag permanently. Moore said that if not for Haley’s leadership, the discussions surrounding the flag would probably have not happened.
Haley said she’s aware that some of her constituents who value the flag feel hurt and betrayed by her decision to call for its removal. But she stressed that she works for everybody in the Palmetto state.
“I just had to do this,” Haley said. “I had to. It’s one of those times when I’m completely at peace with this. I just didn’t question it for a second.”
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.