In 2015, a white supremacist gunman murdered nine black churchgoers inside a historic church in downtown Charleston. The attack shocked the nation’s conscience and thrust then-Governor Nikki Haley into the political spotlight. Her response — calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol — was by far her biggest moment on the national stage.
It was also, in retrospect, one of the last national episodes that featured broad bipartisan unity on an issue around race. President Barack Obama praised Haley for her leadership in a eulogy for one of the victims, state senator Clementa Pinckney, and South Carolina’s Republican-led legislature overwhelmingly voted to remove the flag.
Since then, Democrats have pushed politicians to be much more aggressive in rooting out systemic racism, while conservatives under Donald Trump — whose rhetoric Haley compared in 2016 to the Charleston shooter — have pushed the party to oppose “wokeness” at all costs.
And now Haley is running for president.
Haley’s presidential run may be the biggest test yet of how her Confederate flag moment has worn in the intervening years as voters in both parties re-examine her record and scrutinize her campaign’s characterization of the episode.
The former governor mentioned the shooting in both her announcement video and her first official campaign speech. But she did not mention her decision to remove the flag.
At the same time, Haley has put a very strong emphasis on race in her campaign — she has denounced “identity politics” and criticized claims that America is a “racist” country while also leaning into her experience growing up as a child of Indian immigrants raised in a segregated town.
“Nikki Haley’s groundbreaking leadership on removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds is well known,” Ken Farnaso, a spokesman for Haley, told Semafor.
Haley herself has questioned whether she’d still have been able to take the flag down in later years. Her version of unifying the state at the time meant both calling out the brutal history of slavery, segregation, and violence it represented, while acknowledging positive associations of “heritage” and “tradition” many white southerners felt towards the flag.
After she was criticized in 2019 for saying the Charleston shooter “hijacked” the flag’s meaning of “service, sacrifice, and heritage,” she wrote an op-ed saying that the increased “media hysteria” and “outrage culture” had made conversations about race more difficult.
“Sadly, I’m not sure that in today’s political climate we would have been able to remove the flag,” Haley said.
From the moment Haley’s decision was made, there were voices unhappy with its genteel framing. One activist, Bree Newsome Bass, climbed the flagpole and took the flag down before the legislature voted on its removal.
South Carolina state representative JA Moore, whose sister was murdered in the Charleston shooting, told Semafor that Haley “used the tragedy” for political gain without addressing the deeper hold racism exerts on institutions in the state and around the country.
“That was a token response to my sister being murdered,” Moore told Semafor. “That flag coming down did not change racists in South Carolina, it didn’t change racism in South Carolina. That flag coming down did not prevent some other white supremacist from coming to another place and killing people.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board offered an unlikely echo of this argument last week, writing that Haley’s rhetoric in 2015 was “inspiring,” but that the removal of the flag “was not the result of her effort” and that she supported the flag’s presence during her run for governor when it was more politically convenient.
So far criticism has mostly been confined to relatively fringe figures like conservative pundit Jesse Kelly, who recently tweeted that removing the flag showed “a willingness to kneel before the rage mob,” and Ann Coulter.
But looming over the campaign is Trump, who famously defended Confederate symbols throughout his presidency, including the flag. When Trump described some Charlottesville marchers as “very fine people” even after a neo-Nazi murdered an anti-racist protester — a rare episode where Haley criticized his behavior as president — he was talking about their stated goal of protecting Confederate statues. Trump defended Haley’s move in 2015, but has more recently condemned NASCAR for its “flag decision” on banning Confederate imagery. So far he has yet to raise the issue in his attacks on Haley.
Still, even as conservatives have led attacks on “critical race theory” and “woke” discussions of race, there’s been little movement towards reviving Confederate symbols. There remains a strong argument that Haley’s 2015 decision is still an asset.
GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, told Semafor that Haley should “own what she did,” adding that it remains a “winning issue” even in today’s politically-charged climate.
“I don’t think the Confederate flag is any more popular now than it was then,” Conant said. “I think you have to run on your accomplishments, especially if you’re a governor.”
The View From A Haley Voter
Ken Yasger, a 33-year-old Haley supporter who attended her announcement speech in Charleston, told Semafor he supported the former governor’s nuanced approach to the flag.
Yasger said he was not necessarily “against the Confederate flag” and appreciated Haley’s clarification that it was not seen as “racist” by some southerners, even though he thought it was time for the country to move on from it as an official symbol. “The American flag, in my opinion, should be the only flag at any state capitol,” he said.