COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of the progress South Carolina has made, as evidenced by her own life.
Haley said King’s words inspired her as she grew up as the only Indian-American family in tiny Bamberg, where she wasn’t “light enough to be white or dark enough to be black.”
Growing up “as an ‘other,”’ she said, she felt as if King’s every word spoke directly to her.
“He said things I could relate to,” Haley, the state’s first female and first minority governor, said at the Columbia Urban League’s annual breakfast recognizing the slain civil rights leader.
“I have been changed, all of us have been changed, and he would be so proud of South Carolina,” she said. “He would be so proud of what we’ve become, and he would tell us don’t stop. He would say this is just the beginning.”
King was killed four years before Haley was born, but the Republican governor said she became mesmerized by him at age 5 as she learned about him in school. Haley said she connected to him in any way she could, even boasting that they shared the same astrology sign and that her birthday sometimes fell on his holiday.
“One quote that always stuck with me, Martin Luther King said no one person has the right to rain on your dreams,” Haley said. “The way he captured those moments of bringing people together and reminding us that we’re more alike than we’re different is an amazing thing for a young girl.”
So even though her family wasn’t allowed to join the country club, and even though she was disqualified from a pageant because she was neither white nor black, she said, she takes comfort in knowing that girl from a small Southern town went on to become the nation’s first female Indian-American governor.
She noted too that she appointed the first black U.S. senator from South Carolina. Haley named Sen. Tim Scott last month to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned to lead a national conservative think tank.
“Let’s be clear. I didn’t get to this spot because of the color of my skin. Sen. Scott didn’t get to where he is because of the color of his skin. We got it because we earned it,” she said. “And we got it because Dr. King fought for that to happen.”
She read a proclamation naming Jan. 21 a Martin Luther King Day of Service statewide and asked people to volunteer to help others. Asked what she planned to do, she said she’s letting her two children decide.
The breakfast comes days before the 13th annual MLK Day rally at the Statehouse on Monday.
The Columbia Urban League’s executive director, James T. McLawhorn Jr., said the event’s goal was to bring people together to find common ground, and he appreciates that Haley shared her personal experiences to connect with others.
“Sometimes we don’t connect with people because we don’t see them as people,” McLawhorn said. “She transcended the office of the governor to just be personal. ... She made very clear that at age 5, her success was based on Dr. King’s thoughts and teachings.”
He said her speech fits in with the local league’s call for more civil dialogue. South Carolina is perceived negatively by outsiders, and his group wants to change the state’s image, McLawhorn said.