Nikki Haley’s Revisionist History
With her eyes on her political future in a GOP dominated by Trumpism, Nikki Haley is attempting to rewrite the history of one of the most significant events of her time as Governor of South Carolina.
In the weeks after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, the attention of the state and the nation turned to the state’s capital of Columbia and the Confederate battle flag that was flying on the grounds of the State Building. The flag itself had been a controversy for several years, and that controversy heated up in the wake of the Charleston murders when Roof’s racist motives and his videos and pictures that featured the Confederate flag that featured that flag and other white supremacist symbols. Eventually, after weeks of protest and national controversy, the flag came down and was placed in a museum where it belonged.
One of the many notable outstanding South Carolina politicians during this controversy was Nikki Haley, who was among the first Republicans in the state to come out in favor of removing the flag from state property. Since that event, of course, Haley went on to serve as President Trump’s first Ambassador to the United Nations before resigning at the end of last year. Since then, Haley has been on a book tour and remains an obsequious supporter of the Presidents to the point where some have speculated that she was lobbying to replace Mike Pence on the ticket in 2020.
While that seems unlikely, it seems clear that Haley has her eye on the political future, perhaps including a run for the Republican nomination for President. Given that, it isn’t surprising that Haley is seeking to pander to Trump cult members and other segments of the far-right, even if it means engaging in what amounts to revisionist history:
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley told conservative radio host Glenn Beck on Friday that the Confederate flag represented “service, sacrifice and heritage” for people in her state before mass murderer Dylann Roof “hijacked” its meaning.
Roof murdered nine African American churchgoers during an evening Bible study in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. He was an avowed white supremacist who posed for photos with the Confederate flag.
A week after the massacre, Haley, then the governor, announced her support for removing the Confederate banner from statehouse grounds.
“I think the more important part is it should have never been there,” she said at the time. “These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”
She also said she asked for it to come down because “I couldn’t look my children in the face and justify it staying there.”
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants seen as a Republican rising star, was widely celebrated after taking a stand that would be unpopular with some people in her state. She later served as President Trump’s U.N. ambassador and is widely discussed in GOP circles as a potential presidential candidate.
In discussing the issue with Beck on his podcast, Haley seemed to suggest that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of hate before Roof made it so.
“Here is this guy who comes out with his manifesto holding the Confederate flag and had just hijacked everything that people thought of,” Haley said, according to a video of the interview on BlazeTV. “We don’t have hateful people in South Carolina. There’s always the small minority who are always going to be there, but people saw it as service, sacrifice and heritage. But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it.”
Haley also blamed the “national media” for “wanting to define what happened.”
“They wanted to make this about racism, they wanted to make it about gun control, they wanted to make it about the death penalty,” Haley said.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he was “insulted” and “stunned” by Haley’s comments.
He said it was “pretty obvious” why she made them.
“I read that she said Trump is doing God’s work,” he said. “I just think that she’s trying to appeal to that which Trump appeals to.”
A South Carolina state senator who represents Charleston condemned Haley’s remarks to Beck and challenged her role in getting the Confederate flag removed.
“As the Senator who represents Mother Emanuel & one of the floor leaders to remove the flag, I find these comments ignorant of history & the facts. The General Assembly removed the flag with 2/3rd votes in multi-week debate. Haley was a sideline Mon morning cheerleader at best,” Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D) tweeted.
State Rep. JA Moore (D), whose older sister was slain in the church shooting, retweeted Kimpson and added his own rebuke of Haley.
“@KimpsonForSC – as you know, my sister was tragically murdered in the Mother Emanuel AME Church tragedy. Your leadership & friendship was extremely important to myself and my family. Let’s be clear @NikkiHaley continued use of this tragedy for political reasons is disgusting,” Moore tweeted.
After this interview became public, Haley defended her comments:
In those remarks, she said Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism.”
While not explicitly mentioning slavery, Haley added “At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
In a message linking to the article, Haley said, “2015 was a painful time for our state.The pain was and is still real. Below was my call for the removal of the Confederate flag & I stand by it. I continue to be proud of the people of SC and how we turned the hate of a killer into the love for each other.”
Anne Branigin at The Root comments:
The passage of time—or a stint in the Trump administration—can surely allow you to flatten the truth to your convenience, which is exactly what Haley does here. But whether she’s a self-serving revisionist or a liar is less consequential than the effect of remarks like these.
It’s obvious why Haley might prefer to frame Roof as though he were created in a vacuum, absent any sort of lineage or cultural context. It reinforces the comical idea that a few weeks of “debate” can resolve generations’ worth of structural racism and actual, targeted violence. It supports the lie that individual acts of forgiveness could possibly stand in for accountability and atonement. Because in this paradigm, Roof is an anomaly, not a continuation.
Of course, Roof’s own words negate this. In fact, they point you down the path of where the kind of racial delusions Haley espouses can lead.
“I wish with a passion that n****** were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil an oppressive institution, and so on. Because if it was all it true, it would make it so much easier for me to accept our current situation,” Roof wrote in his manifesto. “But it isnt true. None of it is. We are told to accept what is happening to us because of ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations and myths.”
That the Confederate flag symbolizes something apart from a commitment to racialized chattel slavery is a myth. That people are unaware of its current, explicit endorsement of racial hierarchies and anti-black violence is a lie. But Haley has happily parroted these fabrications because she, like Roof, has actively chosen a gentler, sanitized version of her history. Along the way, she’s hijacked the congregants’ act of forgiveness into a patronizing rebuke of black rage, seeking atonement for a sin that she and others like her have never had the courage to name, let alone confront.
There are, of course, two problems with what Haley said here.
The first, and perhaps most egregious part of her comment, is the idea that the national media swooped into South Carolina in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston and turned a local tragedy into a story about race and the Confederate flag. This comment, as Haley herself should well know, ignores the reality of the motives behind Roof’s attack as well as the plethora of racist material he left behind when he left his home to commit his act of terrorism. The church that Roof chose, for example, was not merely chosen by accident. This church had a long history as an important part of the African-American religious community in the Palmetto State that dated back to the 19th Century and continued through the Civil Rights Era. This is why it was referred to as “Mother Emanuel” by African-Americans both inside and outside the state. Additionally, in the manifesto that Roof left behind and comments after the shooting, Roof made clear that his intention in committing the murders was to start a race war. The media didn’t invent a connection between the murders and race, or between the flag and racism. It merely reported the facts.
The second flaw in Haley’s new comments is the idea that Roof and others “hijacked” the meaning of the Confederate flag. The truth of the matter is that, in the century and a half since the Civil War, the flags of the Confederacy, whether we are talking about the actual national flag or the Northern Virginia battle flag that actually flew on the Capitol grounds in South Carolina, were used as symbols of racism and hatred and intended to send a message most importantly to African-Americans.
Many in the South and others who have an alternative view of history will claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery, or at least not primarily about slavery, and that other issues such as tariff policy, the economy, political power in Washington, and so-called “states rights.” While all of those issues played a role in the relationship between the North and the South in the years leading up to secession and war, though, it was slavery that drove the dynamic of that relationship and it was the desire to protect the institution of slavery and extend it into new territory that led to the creation of the Confederacy. American political history from the founding until the firing of the first shots in Charleston’s Harbor in 1861 is full of that history, including the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1820, the Missouri Compromise, the battles over Kansas between forces for and against slavery, John Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry, and the Election of 1860 itself. The secession of South Carolina and the states of the Deep South was not prompted by any overt act by the United States, but by the fact that Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t even necessarily an abolitionist himself, was elected President. The fact that Lincoln could not have done much of anything to threaten slavery in the South thanks to the fact that Congress, and especially the Senate, was firmly in the control of Southern politicians, was seemingly not sufficient succor to the group of elitists and pro-slavery radicals who pushed the secession movement. What did push the movement, though, was slavery and racism.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
The historical record is clear as to what the Confederacy was, and to display their banners in anything other than a historical context is to give implicit endorsement to those doctrines the same as if one were to file a Nazi Flag from their window.
As if the history of the Confederacy weren’t enough in and of itself to refuse the hate versus heritage argument, the history of how the flag came to be used in modern times ought to confirm it. In the aftermath of the war, the various flags of the defeated nation largely faded away. Robert E. Lee himself, who after the war became President of what is now Washington & Lee University in Virginia argued that the flag should not be displayed in public and left instructions that no such flags were to be displayed at his funeral or his grave after he died. To the extent the flag was seen, it was in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations that existed in the South n in the years after the war, and the reasons they chose to adopt that banner were obvious to everyone.
Most importantly, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Era that the flag we know today started appearing in public in an official capacity. South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and other states across the Old Confederacy adopted the flag by either flying it at state buildings, incorporating it into the state flag, or both as a symbol of resistance to the Federal Government’s efforts to protect the rights of African-Americans and as a symbol to intimidate African-Americans who lived in the South. These states did not start flying the Confederate flag in the 1960s and earlier because of heritage, they were flying it for the same reason that Bull Connor had his officers beating, sending attack dogs after, and using water cannons on peaceful protesters. They did this because they wanted to protect and preserve a system of racial repression and discrimination. That is what that flag stands for, nothing more and nothing less. Publicly displaying the flag(s) of the Confederacy as part of that effort was meant to send a message to African-Americans and to intimidate white southerners who might be inclined to dissent from the Jim Crow system. The meaning of the flag, therefore, was quite clear. It was never about “heritage,” “service,” or “sacrifice.” It was about intimidation and racism. That’s why Dylann Roof and other racists and white supremacists adopted those symbols as their own. The idea that they “hijacked” that meaning as Haley suggests is absurd.
The fact that Haley is engaging in this kind of historical revisionism — both of the meaning behind the flag and the racial motives the shooter had from the beginning — is not surprising. Since being named as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Haley has fallen in line as yet another obsequious supporter of the President. In that respect, Haley, who clearly has an eye on 2024 and other potential political opportunities, is seeking to curry favor with the hard-right of President Trump’s base, many of whom continue to see the Confederacy in a positive light. The fact that she herself is a member of a minority group who is often attacked by these same people, some of whom have claimed she would be ineligible to run for President notwithstanding the fact that she was born in the United States, just makes her obvious pandering even more pathetic.