Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, came under criticism on Friday after she told a conservative radio host that the Confederate flag symbolized “service, sacrifice and heritage” for some people in her state until Dylann S. Roof “hijacked” it.
Mr. Roof, the avowed white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners when he opened fire on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, posed with the flag in several photos before the long-planned attack.
During the podcast interview, she paid tribute to the people targeted by Mr. Roof, calling them “amazing people” before she turned her attention to him and the flag.
“Here is this guy who comes out with his manifesto, holding the Confederate flag and had just hijacked everything that people thought of,” she said on the podcast. “We don’t have hateful people in South Carolina. There’s always the small minority who are always going to be there, but people saw it as service, sacrifice and heritage. But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Ms. Haley called for the flag’s removal from the Statehouse.
She accused the “national media” of “wanting to define what happened.”
“They wanted to make this about racism. They wanted to make it about gun control. They wanted to make it about the death penalty,” Ms. Haley said on the podcast.
Her remarks touched off a heated debate on social media.
“Really, Nikki?!” Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, posted on Twitter, adding that Mr. Roof “inherited” the meaning of the Confederate flag.
Others online accused Ms. Haley of political posturing. In recent years, talk of a possible presidential run has circled Ms. Haley, who is considered a rising star in the Republican Party.
J.A. Moore, a Democratic South Carolina State representative, whose sister was killed in the church shooting, wrote on Twitter that Ms. Haley’s “continued use of this tragedy for political reasons is disgusting.”
Ms. Haley defended herself against the backlash on Twitter on Friday. Posting a transcript of when she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, Ms. Haley said that year was a “painful time” and that she stood by what she said at the time.
In her 2015 remarks, Ms. Haley said “for many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble.”
“Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry,” she said, adding that nevertheless, “for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
“As a state we can survive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints,” Ms. Haley said.
Some Republicans defended her after her interview. Tim Scott, a Republican United States Senator from South Carolina, said in a statement that there “was never a moment where I second-guessed Governor Haley’s leadership through the tragedy.”
A spokeswoman for Ms. Haley said on Saturday that Ms. Haley’s remarks to Mr. Beck did not stray from her previous statements.
Kevin M. Levin, a teacher at the Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass., and Civil War historian responded to Ms. Haley’s posts on Twitter, saying on Saturday that Ms. Haley “knows better.”
“It’s not the first time that the history of the Civil War has been referenced for political purposes,” he said. “Dylann Roof, if anything, inherited the meaning of the Confederate flag.”
The Confederate flag’s history of white supremacy and racism date to the Civil War, he said, explaining that the notion of the flag symbolizing the “brave Confederate ancestor” was actually rooted in the reconciliation of northern and southern whites after the war.
“The notion that Dylann Roof had, sort of, redefined the Confederate flag simply doesn’t hold up, even in response to a cursory glance at the historical record,” he said.
A February report from the Southern Poverty Law Center identified the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting as a central moment in the Confederate flag debate.
“In what seemed like an instant, the South’s 150-year reverence for the Confederacy was shaken,” the center said.
The debate continues, and calls for taking down the flag and other Confederate monuments have been met with resistance. Two Christmas parades in North Carolina were recently canceled after organizers feared violent protests because the events would have included Confederate-friendly groups.
The town of Garner, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh, canceled its parade, which was scheduled for Saturday, “due to concern that the event could be targeted for disruption,” the town said in a statement last month.
And the town of Wake Forest, about 18 miles north of Raleigh, in a statement posted on Facebook late last month, said it’s “extremely sensitive to the emotion the Confederate flag stirs among those on both sides of this issue,” but that legally it could not exclude groups from the parade, which was scheduled for Dec. 14. But last Wednesday it said it canceled the event because of concerns about protests.