In South Carolina these days, no one speaks his name.
The 21-year-old man-boy, who allegedly murdered nine people and incited unity instead of the race war he hoped for, has been condemned to an eternal slog not toward fame but to ignominy.
He is no one.
“We don’t say his name,” Gov. Nikki Haley told me during an interview Monday. “He is something that South Carolina wants to forget.”
The names that won’t be forgotten are those of the victims, whose faces and stories are now etched in hearts across the state and nation. Haley, emotionally exhausted by the nine funerals she has attended, readily recited them, saying she wishes she had known all of them in life rather than in death.
She is haunted by that one hour. The hour the gunman sat with those eight parishioners and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and prayed with them. Did he revel in their unwitting innocence? Was he picking his first victim even as they read the Bible?
“They thought they were moving him,” Haley said. They thought they were showing him God’s love. … They wanted him to feel like he belonged.” Her voice tripped.
How does one process such brutality, inhumanity and hate?
Often the best anyone can do is put one foot in front of the other. With time, the stride lengthens; the pace quickens; and life, intrepid to a fault, goes on.
Thus, Haley moved quickly in urging the General Assembly to take down the Confederate battle flag from its perch on the State House grounds. But she didn’t stop at the flag; she wanted the pole to come down, too. “It was important to me that we take care of this once and for all.”
To this end, she decided to share a story from her own life with the state’s Republican caucus. Haley is the daughter of Sikh immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab. In the tiny, rural town of Bamberg, South Carolina, where Haley grew up, her father wore a turban and her mother a sari. She said she knows what racial pain is like.
“People didn’t know who we were,” she told me. “They didn’t know what we were.”
The story, as recounted to me, went like this.
My father loved to visit farmer’s markets. One day I went with my Dad and he stopped at a roadside stand. He started picking up fruits and vegetables, and I saw panic in the faces at the check-out counter. Then the police came. My father’s a very graceful man. He shook their hands and said hello and we got in the car. He didn’t say anything because he hoped I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t say anything because I knew what had happened.
Hard to know what the folks were worried about, but then places like Bamberg, population 2,500 at the time, didn’t much cotton to strangers, especially foreigners, back then.
“Every time I passed that stand, that pain was very real,” she told me. “No child should have to experience that.”
The pain Haley felt, she said, is the same kind of pain many people in the state have felt every time they passed the Confederate battle flag. Pushback was inevitable. One needn’t look long to find online comments that are hideous and cruel. And though any civilized person wants to rail at such lowlife incivility, Haley says she understands that they feel betrayed.
The state’s grief and the healing process notwithstanding, political ramifications attach to such events. Haley, obviously, has been catapulted onto the national stage and into the Republican imagination. Though long on a short list of possible vice-presidential running mates, she demurred on this line of questioning, saying without a hint of obvious humor, “I have a lot of friends who happen to be running for president.” Those who have contacted her in recent weeks to express support include Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
For now, Haley says her focus is on helping her state heal. She plans to begin “Emanuel Nine” tours in schools to talk about the love, faith and forgiveness of the nine people at Emanuel AME Church whose lives and martyrdom conveyed compassion and grace to millions across the state and beyond.
“In the history books of South Carolina,” says Haley, “they'll talk about the Emanuel Nine.”
Not him, whose name no one wants to say.
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group