Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Black Community Leaders Aren’t Forgiving Northam’s Racist Photos Without a Resignation

On Saturday, February 2nd, protesters called for Northam's resignation.
Francesca Leigh Davis led protestors on Capitol Square Saturday to call for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's resignation. Whittney Evans/WCVE

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam must make a decision: abandon his post as governor, or fight an uphill battle to regain the confidence of Virginians in light of a racist yearbook photothat surfaced last week. But his refusal to step down now may make forgiveness a long shot, especially in the African American community.

2019 was supposed to be the "Year of Reconciliation and Civility in Virginia."

Last month, Northam stood with prominent state leaders to call for racial reconciliation and recognition of Virginia’s sordid racial history.

“People ask me all the time. Who is my hero? Her picture is hanging in our home,” Northam said. “That’s Barbara Johns.”

Barbara Johns was the black girl who in 1951 who led her Virginia high school classmates in a walk-out to protest racial segregation.  

In less than a month since that congenial gathering, Northam finds himself in a position of recognizing his own racial transgressions.

An apology

Outrage reverberated throughout the state Friday when Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced. A page dedicated to Northam also included a photo of two people, one wearing blackface, another in a Ku Klux Klan uniform.

Northam released a written statement, apologizing for appearing in the photo.

                  “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now," Northam said. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”

But in a Saturday afternoon press conference, he changed course, admitting only to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest around the same time.

“It is because my memory of that episode of that is so vivid that i truly do not believe I am in the picture in my yearbook,” Northam said.

Despite widespread calls for his resignation, Northam said he’s determined to win back the trust of the people calling for his ouster.

John Kador, a business writer who researchers how to apologize effectively, has been following the Northam controversy closely. Kador said the governor’s first apology actually started well. He accepted responsibility, and said specifically what he was apologizing for.

“He failed to do the last part which is the restitution step,” Kador said. “That part would have shown the public that by some element of sacrifice, he understood the gravity of his offense and what it took to right the scales.”

Kador said sacrifice is the key to a proper apology.

“You cannot talk your way out of an offense you acted your way into,” he said.

No reconciliation

Virginia’s NAACP and Legislative Black Caucus are unequivocal about what Northam’s next steps should be.

“We can’t have any conversation about reconciliation about forgiveness until you resign,” said James Boyd, president of the NAACP in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Boyd told WCVE he was not surprised by the revelation. Just this fall, Northam personally apologized to the organization for dressing as a former Virginia Governor and known slave owner for Halloween.

“This might have happened back in medical school, but look at what you’re doing today,” Boyd said. “There’s a system that put Ralph Northam where he was. We can’t forget it.”

Del. Jeffrey Bourne (D-Richmond) is a member of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus. He says he believes Northam doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body, but still called on him to resign.

“The man Ralph Northam can rehabilitate himself and make amends and attempt to rebuild the relationships that have broken down,” Bourne said. “But governor Northam, that’s beyond repair.”

Francesca Leigh Davis led protests on Saturday calling for Northam to step down.

“As a black woman who voted for Northam. I am very disappointed. I feel disrespected. I feel lied to. I feel deceived. I feel cheated. I feel used for my vote,” Davis said. “And we look like fools because we have tirelessly and loyally given our support to white men who continue to deceive us.”

Davis, who is also co-founder of the local political blog RVA Dirt, says Northam hasn’t begun to take the steps needed to earn her forgiveness.

“I don’t want to talk about a long road to healing,” Davis said. “Because this long road to healing, black people have been on it by themselves.”

Davis has called for Northam to step aside so that Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, can assume the governorship.

Fairfax is embroiled in his own controversy. He’s been accused of sexual assault, an allegation he denies.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
Related Stories