Haley on tragedies of last year: 'I look at 2015 as a year of faith'

Gov. Nikki Haley answers questions from cadets during her leadership talk at McAlister Fieldhouse on March 17, 2016.

Leadership in the face of unspeakable tragedies calls for a delicate balance of courage, compassion, and faith, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told The Citadel's Corps of Cadets on Thursday.

As part of the military college's leadership series called Greater Issues, Haley touched on the shooting of Walter Scott, the killing of nine Emanuel AME Church members at a Bible study, the takedown of the Confederate flag, and the historic flooding of October that forced thousands from their homes and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people.

"I have learned as a person that while most people look at 2015 as a year of tragedy, I look at 2015 as a year of faith. There is nothing that can prepare you for the tragedies we saw last year," she said.

After the shooting death of Walter Scott, a black man, by a white North Charleston police officer during a traffic stop, Haley said what followed could have been a wildly different story of South Carolina.

There had already been a number of other deadly interactions around the country between white police officers and black men that had sparked protests and even riots.

But Haley says the strength and faith of the Scott family changed the dynamic. "Through faith, strength, and pain they let South Carolina do the right thing," Haley said, which led to the first statewide bill mandating body cameras for police officers in the country.

"We go through that situation. We took a wrong a tried to make it right -- and then June 17 came," Haley said.

Haley retold the story of the shooting, describing the victims as "12 people who did what they did everyday." She says the members of the Emanuel AME Church welcomed a man who did not look like them or act like them into their group and prayed with him for an hour.

There was no mention of the shooter's name. Haley only talked about the moments of the shooting by describing the acts of Twanza Sanders, one of the victims, who used his own body to shield his grandmother and tell the shooter they didn't mean him any harm, Haley said.

She talked about the bond hearing two days later and how several family members offered forgiveness.

"We should all hope to have that kind of love and acceptance. We didn't have riots; we had vigils. We didn't have fights; we had hugs," Haley said.

Again, the state of South Carolina was in the national spotlight, Haley said.

"The entire country was changed by 12 people on a day they thought they were going to a regular Bible study," Haley said. "That shows that everything matters."

Haley said she didn't sleep for days after the shooting, and the person she often turned to for advice and comfort, her husband, had been deployed leaving her alone. She said she knew it would not be an easy thing to do to remove the Confederate Flag from Statehouse grounds.

Haley says she told her husband who returned home a few days later that she knew the flag had to be removed.

"He hijacked it and made it a flag about hate," she told the cadets about the accused Emanuel AME shooter Dylann Roof. "I know the honor and heritage so many associated with the flag. We could not let the murderer win. But we had to do it in a way that would respect those people."

What happened was a group of four closed-door meetings with Democrats, Republicans, community leaders, and federal officials, Haley said. She says she did not hint at what the meeting was about because she wanted each group to attend, Haley said, ending each meeting by telling the groups that she would at a 4 p.m. press conference call for the Confederate Flag's removal.

"If you stand with me, I'm grateful. If you don't, I'll never tell anyone you were here," Haley recalled telling the groups.

What followed were phone calls from both sides of the aisle asking who had agreed to attend, but Haley said her office didn't know and her staffers were telling the curious lawmakers they weren't sure who would stand at Haley's side.

"But a massice group came in. Sen. Courson came and called Sen. Thurmond and brought him in just to make sure people knew this wasn't partisan," Haley said.

Haley told the cadets that leading the state through those tragedies in the first half of 2015 taught her that fighting for issues didn't mean there had to be winners and losers. She said there's a way to handle tough, emotional issues with respect and care.

There were fights of the verbal sort inside the Statehouse as lawmakers debated well into the night to remove the flag. There were fights of the physical sort outside the Statehouse as members of the KKK clashed with black rights groups that led to several arrests and conversations by law enforcement on ways to reduce the chance that level of violence could happen again.

And then there was the historic flooding of October.

"I looked at God and said, 'OK, that's enough. Move on already,'" she said.

Giving context to the amount of rain that fell on the state alst October, Haley said it was enough water to giver every American a bottle of water every day for the next 182 years.

But the floods didn't break down a state already dealing with a number of tragedies and historic legislative battles that sparked similar political fights in other Southern states.

"It was neighbors helping neighbors and South Carolina at her finest," she said.

Circling back to the topic of leadership and character, Haley said 2015 changed her answer, that what she would have said before Walter Scott and Emanuel, and the Confederate Flag, and the floods would have been different. But now she says that leadership and character takes courage. That doesn't mean doing what's popular, she said, but doing what's right even when it's not popular.

Leadership, Haley told the cadets, is what happens when a person makes a hard decision that also brings out the best in people.

"I found the goodness in people last year and we moved forward. The past is the past, but the future looks really bright for us," Haley said.

"I am a proud governor of what I think is the greatest state in the union. We showed three times that we're going to do everything we can to do what's right."

Related Sections:

The Emanuel AME Shooting

The Walter Scott Shooting

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