Nikki Haley let the Confederate flag fly until a massacre forced her hand
"She told Confederate groups that flag was about “heritage,” and her campaign said efforts to remove it from the State House grounds were “desperate and irresponsible”
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Amid her barrier-breaking first run for governor, Nikki Haley took time off the trail for an unusual event: A private meeting with two leaders of Confederate heritage groups.
The men listened during the 2010 conversation as the Republican candidate assured them that she shared their worldview. She said the Civil War was a fight between “tradition” and “change,” without mentioning the word slavery. She said she supported Confederate History Month as a parallel to Black History Month.
And, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she suggested that her identity as a minority woman could help her take on the NAACP, which was leading a boycott of the state until the Confederate flag was taken off the State House grounds.
“I will work to talk to them about the heritage and how this is not something that is racist,” Haley said in a discussion captured on video.
Haley’s outreach to Confederate groups reflects a more complex backstory than she has previously acknowledged about her most famous act: Signing legislation five years later that removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in the wake of a racist massacre at a Black church in Charleston.
As Haley rose from governor to U.N. ambassador under President Donald Trump, she often portrayed the decision as the culmination of her work to move South Carolina beyond its history of secession, enslavement and segregation. The reason she didn’t try to take down the flag sooner, Haley claimed in her 2019 memoir, was because members of both parties had “pushed back” against the idea, adding that“even many African American Democrats were privately opposed to the idea of reopening the flag debate.”
Yet a Washington Post review of Haley’s actions in the five years before the massacre found that she repeatedly dismissed efforts to remove the flag, mollified Confederate heritage groups whose influence remained a powerful force, and did not hold substantive discussions with Black leaders who wanted to remove the flag. Months before the mass killing that changed her position, her reelection campaign had called a proposal by her Democratic opponent to remove the flag “desperate and irresponsible.”
Her actions in South Carolina illuminate how she has carefully tailored her approach to race depending on the audience. At times, she has invoked her reaction to the Charleston massacre to take on other Republicans, as she did when criticizing Trump for his claim that the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville had included “very fine people on both sides.” But as she now runs in a GOP presidential primary fixated in part on critiques of a “woke” agenda to re-examine racial fault lines in America’s history, her announcement video highlights her leadership after the 2015 Charleston massacre without any mention that she signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
Haley declined to comment and did not respond directly to a detailed list of questions from The Post, including a request that she provide the names of Black legislators who opposed reopening the debate over the Confederate flag. In a statement, Haley campaign spokesperson Chaney Denton said that there “was little appetite in either political party” to take action on the flag, but that “Haley did her best to hold the state together” after a White man killed nine Black parishioners at a Charleston church.
In the wake of the murders, “there was nothing inevitable” about the flag’s removal, Denton said, and “without Governor Haley’s leadership, that would not have happened. That is a fact that was recognized by many across the political spectrum. It appears some people want to rewrite history because they don’t agree with her running for president.”
Denton said those critical of Haley’s actions have a “political motivation.”
Black legislators said Haley deserves credit for eventually embracing the call to remove the flag, and many said that they have no reason to doubt Haley’s assertion that she played a role in persuading some wavering legislators to support the move.
But those who spent years fighting to remove the Confederate flag under Haley’s governorship also say that her accounts obscure her long history of dismissing removal efforts until after the mass shooting by an avowed white supremacist who embraced the flag.
“When she had a chance to do it prior to the deaths of those nine people, she never, ever offered to bring us together to make a change,” said James Gallman, a past president of the South Carolina NAACP.
Critics particularly bristle at Haley’s claim that unnamed Black legislators had also resisted removing the flag before the massacre.
“That sounds like [she is saying], ‘My cover is that I didn’t do it because even the Black legislators did not want it done,’” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson (D), a Black descendant of enslaved South Carolinians who helped broker a compromise in 2000 that moved the flag from atop the dome to the State House lawn.
In fact, Jackson said in an interview at his office overlooking the State House, no Black Democratic legislator believed that “we were happy with this flag being there forever.”
Growing up in a small town
A bitter history of racism formed the backdrop of Haley’s upbringing in the tiny South Carolina town of Bamberg.
In 1897, a pathbreaking Black woman, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, opened the only high school for Black people — after other schools she opened were burned downby White supremacists — that became a historically Black institution known today as Voorhees University.
In 1969, that college hired Haley’s father, an immigrant from India named Ajit Singh Randhawa, who taught biology there until 1997, according to the institution. By the time Haley went to elementary school, she has said, she saw how discrimination still affected her and others in a county that was less than 1 percent Asian in the most recent census.
One day, Haley later wrote, sides were being chosen for kickball, and children split into groups of Blacks and Whites.
“Are you Black or White?” a schoolmate asked.
“I’m neither,” Haley responded, according to her memoir. “I’m Brown.”
Haley’s goal, as she later put it, was that “I just wanted to fit in.”
She later found she fit within the ideology of the Republican Party, and in South Carolina, the Confederate flag was a central part of political life.
The flag had flown atop the State House since 1961, when it was raised as a symbol of defiance of the Civil Rights movement. Even as public sentiment later shifted — with increasing numbers of White people joining Black leaders and marching against the Confederate flag — the state Republican Party remained steadfast. Republican Gov. David Beasley bucked his party by proposing the flag’s removal, an unsuccessful effort that some partly blamed for his defeat in his 1998 reelection bid against a Democrat.
Writing years later, Haley said Beasley’s flag proposal was “career-ending” — a fate she had no interest in replicating.
Racial tensions over the flag remained high when, in 2004, Haley was elected the first Indian American legislator in the state’s House. Although legislators had taken the flag off the dome four years earlier, they moved it to a Confederate statue in front of the State House — and added a provision requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to fully remove it.
As Haley announced a bid for governor in 2009, the flag’s prominence remained a major issue, with the NAACP boycott costing South Carolina convention business and NCAA tournaments.
“If she had made the flag a central theme of her campaign, she wouldn’t have won,” said Rick Quinn Jr., a Republican former House Majority leader who blamed his loss in 2004 on his support for moving the flag to the State House lawn.
So as she campaigned for the primary — trailing in polls to two popular Republicans, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Attorney General Henry McMaster — she first argued the flag was a moot point, because two-thirds of the legislature would not vote to remove it. In February 2010, a Myrtle Beach Sun-News columnist wrote that among the GOP candidates, Haley “gave perhaps the most honest answer” by dropping the “pretense” that the matter was settled and acknowledging that the NAACP boycott was hurting businesses.
Such statements alarmed the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Palmetto Patriots, among the staunchest supporters of keeping the flag at the State House — especially coming from a minority woman who spoke about her battles with racism.
Haley now faced a pivotal decision about whether to engage with the groups. But, critics say, a Republican candidate like Haley really had no choice at all.
“If she would have come out of that meeting and said, ‘I want to take down the flag,’ Nikki Haley would not be governor,” said political commentator Bakari Sellers, who was a Democratic state representative in South Carolina at the time.
So she accepted an invitation to meet with the Confederate groups’ leaders. One was Robert Slimp, a Columbia pastor who had been on the board of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the Anti-Defamation League has called a white supremacist organization — a claim the council has rejected. (Slimp died in 2021. The other man has not been identified.)
Haley spent nearly 10 minutes trying to win them over in an exchange filmed and uploaded to a YouTube channel run by the Palmetto Patriots. Although Haley said she didn’t see the flag as a “priority,” she also embraced their view that Confederate history should be celebrated. “The same as you have Black History Month, like when you have Confederate History Month,” she said, it should be done “in a positive way.”
Haley at one point said “our Creator endowed the rights of everyone” but she did not mention slavery when discussing the causes of the Civil War. Instead, she said, “you had one side of the Civil War that was fighting for tradition. And, I think, you had another side of the Civil War that was fighting for change.”
Asked whether she would ever change her mind on removing the Confederate flag, Haley responded, “No, I would not,” adding: “I don’t have any intentions of bringing it back up or making it an issue.”
Haley also argued that her identity could help their cause. “I’m the perfect person to deal with the boycott because as a minority female, I’m going to talk to them and I’m going to go and let them know that every state has different conditions and every state has certain things that they hold as part of their heritage.”
Haley did not respond to a question from The Post about whether she followed through and met with NAACP officials during the campaign. Three former NAACP officials interviewed by The Post said they have no recollection of Haley coming to talk to representatives of the group, although it is possible she talked to others associated with the group.
“To my understanding, no, and I think I would have known about that,” said the Reverend Joe Darby, who was first vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP during Haley’s 2010 campaign. Had Haley met with him, Darby said, “we would have explained why it was racist and why it was an insult to many of those who pay her salary with tax money in South Carolina.”
Her meeting with the Confederate groups, first reported in 2010 by the Wall Street Journal, garnered little notice during the campaign. The story was published just before she surged to win the Republican primary and then defeated Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who did not campaign on removing the flag.
Jackson, the state senator, said he was dismayed that someone with Haley’s life experiences would engage with Confederate groups.
“The thing that upset me most is that I was familiar with her background, a woman of color, someone who, by her own account, had been discriminated against as a child, and [had] a father who worked for a historically Black college,” Jackson said.
As she moved into the governor’s office, Haley faced new pressure from both sides. As the NAACP boycott continued, she was also visited by a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who had not participated in the 2010 interview.
“She promised me that she would not interfere with the Confederate flag on the State House grounds,” said Mark Simpson, the group’s former South Carolina division commander. “I said, ‘Can I tell that to my men?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and I did.”
As she sought reelection in 2014, her opponent was once again Sheheen — whothis time decided to make removing the Confederate flag a centerpiece of his campaign, a proposal that Haley’s campaign in response called “desperate and irresponsible.”
Haley doubled down on her opposition to any change. In a debate, Haley reiterated what had become her standard line, saying that she had not had “one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.” She said the state’s image had been repaired, because “you elected the first Indian American female governor.”
Haley won reelection in November 2014 by a large margin, 56 to 41 percent.
Racial tensions come to the fore
Haley’s national profile hit a new peak after her reelection, with her success as a minority woman at the helm of a Southern conservative state prompting early talk of a presidential run.
But even as she embraced her signature call that “it’s a great day in South Carolina,” racial tensions simmered — and soon would test her in politically perilous ways.
Shortly after beginning her second term, Haley faced an escalating crisis after a bystander’s video showed a White police officer fatally shooting an unarmed Black man, Walter Scott, who was fleeing on foot in North Charleston. The video contradicted the officer’s claim that he fired eight shots because he feared for his life.
Haley was pushed to take action by Clementa Pinckney, a Black state senator who was calling for all South Carolina police officers to use body cameras. Haley embraced the Democrat’s plan, signing the legislation on June 10, 2015, earning bipartisan plaudits for making South Carolina the first with a statewide policy.
But Pinckney was also a leading advocate on another issue that put him in conflict with Haley: calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the State House.
Pinckney “stood with the NAACP, he stood with many in the Black faith community, he stood with Sheheen … that the flag should come down,” said Antjuan Seawright, a political adviser to Pinckney and other members of the South Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus.
One week after the body camera bill was signed, Pinckney, 41, attended a legislative hearing. Then he drove to his job as pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
That same day, June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, also drove to Charleston.He was armed for a massacre against Black people, hoping to start a new race war.
Roof had searched the internet for information about what he later called “black on White crime” and came across the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens — the group whose board members had included Slimp, the leader Haley had met with five years earlier. A spokesman for the council in 2015 “categorically” condemned Roof’s actions and said the group had no direct contact or knowledge of him.
Haley did not respond to questions about her familiarity with Slimp before the 2010 meeting.
Roof later posted a screed in which he wrote that after his online searching, “I have never been the same since that day.” Along with the missive, Roof posted a photo of himself brandishing the Confederate flag and a gun.
On that June day, Roof parked by the church, walked inside and spent an hour listening to Pinckney teach a Bible class. Then he murdered nine people, including Pinckney.
Haley went to every funeral.
Two days after the massacre, Haley was questioned on “CBS This Morning” about increasing calls to remove the flag from the State House grounds. She repeatedly declined to support the idea. “We’ll see where it goes,” she said, saying she hoped for a thoughtful conversation.
“But what’s your position on the issue right now?” anchor Gayle King asked.
She again declined to take a stand, saying, “My job is to heal the people. … You will hear me come out and talk about it. But right now, I’m not doing that to the people of my state.”
Haley later said she was physically and mentally exhausted from dealing with the mass killing. She wrote that her stress had deepened, that she cried herself to sleep, lost her appetite and shed 20 pounds. Her doctor told her she was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. But for days, she did not publicly change her position.
As Haley prevaricated, legislators on both sides of the aisle were acting. State Rep. Doug Brannon, a White Republican, appeared on national television to declare that he would introduce a bill to remove the flag. (A Senate version eventually was adopted by the House.)
“Clementa was on my mind,” Brannon said in an interview, recalling that the last conversation he had with Pinckney was about the flag and the economic impact of the NAACP boycott.
It was five days after the massacre, on June 22, when Haley announced her support for removing the Confederate flag.
“I don’t see any way that the flag can continue to fly at the statehouse,” she told her husband, according to her memoir. She added: “I would never be able to look our children in the eye and tell them the flag was still flying on the statehouse grounds.”
In her memoir, Haley sought to explain why she had insisted for years that the flag was not racist. She wrote that she knew the state couldn’t move forward “with the flag literally hanging over us” — but added that “as governor, I couldn’t move the flag on my own.”
Even in calling for the flag’s removal, though, Haley still did not criticize what it represented. Instead, she said that while some viewed the flag as a “symbol of respect,” others saw it as a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” She said South Carolina could still be “home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner or loser here.”
However, another Republican, state Sen. Paul Thurmond, son of the segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, said in his floor speech that, “Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage.”
The Senate voted 37-3 and the House voted 94-20 to remove the flag. Haley signed the bill on July 9, 2015.
Fifty-four years after the Confederate flag was raised atop the dome, and 15 years after the compromise put it in front of the capitol building, the flag was removed from the State House grounds and placed in the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
It was a victory long sought by the NAACP, which ended its boycott of the state. Haley’s reversal in the wake of the massacre was widely acclaimed. President Barack Obama praised her “eloquence,” and NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said that Haley showed “leadership and moral courage by changing her position and supporting the flag removal in the aftermath of tragedy.”
Rob Godfrey, Haley’s deputy chief of staff at the time, said it was a defining moment.
“Leadership is defined by how you respond in a crisis,” Godfrey said. “The governor demonstrated incredible leadership, including in the way she dealt with the flag.”
But the years of delay angered those who had gotten nowhere with Haley on the flag issue until after the massacre.
Brannon, the Republican state legislator, said, “After the bill’s introduced, she changes from ‘Leave the flag alone’ to ‘We should take the flag down.’” He said he believes the bill “absolutely” would have passed regardless of her eventual support because the tide had turned in the aftermath of the mass killing.
Gallman, the former South Carolina NAACP president, said that if Haley had spoken up years earlier, she might have gotten the flag removed entirely from the State House grounds — and perhaps sent a message that reached people like Roof.
“I think it would have made a difference,” Gallman said. “When she became governor, there were opportunities, there were a number of legislators who agreed it needed to be done.”
Sellers, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 and joined Sheheen in calling for the flag’s removal, said that while Haley’s eventual support is commendable, she had for years been “an impediment to the flag coming down.”
“Nikki Haley did not take the Confederate flag down in South Carolina,” Sellers said. “The blood of Black folk, churchgoing, the best of the best of us, took the flag down in South Carolina.”
Alice Crites and Matthew Brown in Washington contributed to this report."