South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley challenged Republicans to do more to reach out to minorities and address racial inequality in her keynote speech Friday night at the Tennessee GOP's annual Statemen's Dinner.
The Indian-American governor recounted her upbringing in a small town where she and her family were "not white enough to be white, not black enough to be black." But she said her state and Tennessee are now part of a "New South" where attitudes have changed vastly in just a few decades.
"I would not have been elected governor of South Carolina if our state was a racially intolerant place. And I would not have won the Republican primary if we had a racially intolerant party," she said.
More than 1,000 Republicans attended the banquet, which raised over $600,000 for the Tennessee Republican Party. In addition to Haley, they heard tributes to the late Sen. Fred Thompson and retiring speaker of the Tennessee Senate, Ron Ramsey.
The dinner came less than two weeks after businessman Donald Trump appeared to cinch the Republican nomination for president, but scant mention was made of the party's presumptive leader.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes made perhaps the only direct reference to Trump of the night when he joked in his opening remarks that he looks forward to the reality television star "firing Hillary Clinton once and for all" this fall.
Within the Republican Party, Haley has been seen as a foil to Trump, proof that white GOP voters will embrace non-white leaders.
Haley argued minorities like her could become the norm among Republicans — rather than the exception — if the party "communicates in ways that wipe away the clutter of prejudice." She listed Indian, Asian, Jewish, Latino and African-American voters as people who could be brought into the Republican fold.
Haley described her efforts to recruit companies to South Carolina and improve the state's education system as a means toward racial healing. She noted that people living in poverty are more often black and said that it's "wrong" and "immoral" that children in poor, rural schools don't receive the same resources as those in richer, urban districts.
"I didn't choose to focus education resources into high-poverty areas for racial reasons. I did it because I firmly believe every child deserves a great education, regardless of where they're born and raised. But in doing so, there's no question it has a racial impact," she said.
Haley also spoke directly about last year's shooting of a black North Charleston man by a white police officer — arguing the state avoided unrest by moving swiftly to investigate and bring charges — and the killing of nine black churchgoers in downtown Charleston.
"This was the act of a racist, motivated not by mental illness but by pure hate," she said.
Haley responded by removing Confederate flags from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.
Outside the Music City Center, a handful of demonstrators protested that decision. They accused Haley of disrespecting Southern heritage.
Haley tried to strike a conciliatory tone.
"There are many wonderful, decent, honorable people in our state who revere that flag," she said. "They are not racists. They are the same people who elected an African-American U.S. senator (Tim Scott) and twice elected an Indian-American governor. … But what happened in Charleston shed a different light on an issue our state had long struggled with."
Haley said in the aftermath of the shooting, lawmakers were at last willing to consider to the viewpoint.
Evidence, said Haley, that "often the best thing we can do is turn down the volume level" and listen.