South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley waits to speak to the press outside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 19. Nine African Americans were slain in a racially motivated assault at the church. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Public life in this tiny town — all two main roads of it — centers on the Hardee’s, the strip mall with the town’s grocery store and Family Dollar, and Rusty-n-Paula’s Restaurant.

Visitors could almost miss it altogether if not for the road sign on the drive in: “Bamberg, home of Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina.”

Most mornings, Rusty’s is where the town comes to chat — or argue, as the case may be. Haley comes up often: “Everybody in Bamberg likes her,” said waitress Dianna Crosby.

And in recent days, the talk has focused on the Confederate flag, which Haley is pushing to have removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in the wake of the racially motivated massacre of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Her home town, Haley often says, has changed since the days when, as an Indian American, she could not qualify to become either the white or the black pageant queen. But even with one of their own leading the charge, the town is like much of the rest of the state on the flag: sharply divided along racial lines.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol following the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a Charleston church. (South Carolina ETV)

“Most of ’em I’ve heard talking say, ‘What’s the flag got to do with it?’ ” said Crosby, who is white. “All it is is a symbol of history. It ain’t going out killing anybody or hurting anybody. It’s just out there showing the history of South Carolina.”

Sitting on a chaise lounge in her statehouse office in Columbia last week, Haley reflected on her sudden role as an Indian American woman serving as the face of a Southern state’s reckoning with its past.

It marks a remarkable evolution for a politician who first ran for governor as a state lawmaker waving the tea party banner, but who was also subjected to ethnic slurs from her own side. Once in office, she initially struggled to cope with South Carolina’s white, male-dominated establishment — often reluctant to insert herself into racial politics — only to emerge now as a prominent and confident leader of the New South.

“To be a minority female governor leading this charge, I don’t look at the boxes that I am,” said Haley, who attended a funeral for one of the victims Sunday. “I look at the fact that I’m a wife and a mother and a governor who loves this state, that refuses to let it break and refuses to let it fall apart over a flag.”

The first thing Haley did the morning after the June 17 shooting was head to the crime scene, spending the next two days there hearing about the horrors that occurred in the Emanuel basement.

By that Friday night, she returned home and stayed up late with her husband, Michael Haley, a member of the National Guard who had just returned from a three-week military training session.

“I didn’t even have to think hard about it,” said Haley, mother of a 17-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. “It is looking at my kids, knowing where I had come from in Bamberg. I just want them to feel it moving forward. I want them to feel as much of a change as I do.”

“I just couldn’t look them in the face and keep that flag up,” she said.

‘We were just broken’

She began that Saturday morning after the slayings by telling a small group of staff members that she wanted to meet with them via conference call. Within hours, another shoe dropped: A vile, 2,000-plus-word racist screed had been found online, and it appeared to belong to accused gunman Dylann Roof.

There were photos too, including one of Roof burning the American flag and another of the brooding 21-year-old holding the Confederate flag.

The timing of the two events — the discovery of the manifesto and Haley’s decision to move forward with the legislative heavy lifting that would be required to take up the flag issue — was entirely coincidental, she said. But it proved to be the push that was needed.

“This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it,” Haley said. “And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate.”

“At some point, you can’t get more disgusted than you already are,” she added.

On Sunday, June 21, a larger group of staff met at the governor’s mansion to strategize and begin making calls to lawmakers.

Between 1 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. the next day, Haley met in person with state Democrats, Republicans, religious and civic leaders, and the state’s congressional delegation.

She met separately with U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, the delegation’s lone African American Democrat.

At 4 p.m., with a bevy of dignitaries behind her, she made her announcement: “It is time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.”

These days, Haley projects calm, but also a deep sadness. She is known for being a sober, rational decision-maker — but those close to her say the killings in Charleston have made her emotionally raw.

“It felt like we were just broken,” Haley says. “Truly, the state of South Carolina was just broken like I had never seen. And the only thought was, how are we ever going to pull this back together?”

Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said that as a candidate, Haley was crusading “against the good old boys.” This time is no different.

“That’s a herculean effort that Nikki started,” Dawson said, adding that most Carolinians are with her. “One said this morning, ‘Katon, I get it, I’m tired of it, I’m tired of the discussion, I’m tired of the excuses. I’m tired of it.’ ”

Lessons from home

Bamberg is also on Haley’s mind these days. This crisis, more than any other, has brought to the forefront a lot of things Haley learned, and struggled with, growing up.

Far away from any city, Bamberg is a small town among small towns. About 10 miles from the town limits in either direction, you’re likely to encounter a Confederate flag.

The boutique that her parents owned when she grew up here is gone, but people still remember the fancy clothes and jewelry it sold.

It was in this place that Haley learned how to exist on the line between black and white that seems to pervade everything in this state. She did it, largely, by avoiding the issue of racial differences altogether in favor of fitting in.

Every time she was urged to pick a side, Haley says, she chose neither.

Her children have also been encouraged to focus on similarities more than differences, Haley said. But in South Carolina, differences are impossible to avoid.

Recently, her younger child, Nalin, was studying history in school and raised the thorny history of the Confederate flag with his parents. He asked whether anyone had ever suggested taking it down, Haley recalled.

She told him about the blistering 2000 fight that ended in a compromise — the flag would come down from the statehouse dome and be placed in front of the building near the Confederate memorial.

“I told him that it was so hurtful that nobody has ever wanted to talk about it again,” Haley said.

‘It needs to come down’

Among the political class, Haley’s decision to tackle the divisive Confederate flag issue is evidence of her “whatever it takes” leadership style.

But here in Bamberg, people see it a little differently. The city is now about 60 percent black, and Alton McCollum, the city’s longtime former mayor and Haley’s elementary school principal, estimates that opinions about the flag closely mirror the demographics.

That Haley would take this on “came as a surprise,” he said. “I hadn’t even thought about her making that decision.”

Growing up in Bamberg, Haley saw the state’s racial divisions firsthand. Haley, her three siblings and her Indian parents — mother dressed in a sari and father in a turban — were not black enough to be black or white enough to be white.

Haley converted from the Sikh religion in which she was raised to Christianity long ago. But when she ran for governor in 2010 — catapulted out of obscurity by the support of national Republicans such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney — her political opponents baited voters by spreading rumors that she was not Christian.

Now, more than four years into her governorship, Haley has come full circle. Republicans hold her up as a sign of the party’s progress on racial issues. And by taking on the state’s most divisive issue — the Confederate flag — she has come closer than ever to making that true.

But Haley’s relationship with the state’s sizable African American population has often been fraught. She has clashed frequently with black Democrats, including over a controversial voter identification law that civil rights leaders strongly opposed as discriminatory.

Here in Bamberg, African Americans shake their heads at the sudden urgency to remove it, noting with more than a little irritation that it took the brutal killings of nine people to bring the state, and Haley, to this point.

“It needs to come down,” John Washington, 81, an African American who was born and raised in Bamberg, said about the flag.

‘Time to do something’

Fifteen years ago, thousands took to the streets to urge lawmakers not to touch it. But by last week, hundreds protested outside of the capitol calling for its removal.

“There’s a groundswell now that wasn’t there a year ago,” noted David Wilkins, who was speaker of the South Carolina House at the time and is a former U.S. ambassador to Canada. “The pictures of the killer with the Confederate flag raised the consciousness throughout the entire state that, ‘Hey, it’s time to do something.’ ”

By last Monday, pressure was building for presidential candidates to take a stand. Most hedged on the issue, waiting for Haley to make a move.

After her announcement, the floodgates opened. One by one, political figures in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama began calling for the flag to come down in their states.

“I knew that if I gave that speech on Monday and called for the flag to come down, while I knew it could hurt, I knew that it was giving a lot of people a pass to do what was right,” Haley said. “And that’s what I wanted to do, was let them know that it’s okay, you can do this.”

In South Carolina, there is still plenty of disagreement about what the Confederate flag means. But there is increasing agreement that the time has come to move on.

The end of this era for the flag is greeted in this small town with some resignation, but also relief.

“It’s about time,” Paula Dyches, 52, said from behind the counter at Rusty-n-Paula’s. “It’s time for everybody to just put race aside.”

“Our generation — we need to do this now,” she added. “Let’s live our legacy.”