Governor Northam Must Resign Over Blackface Yearbook Photo

Governor Northam Must Resign Over Blackface Yearbook Photo

Calls are mounting for Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after a photo surfaced from his medical school yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. However, on Saturday, he reversed course and claimed neither of the men in the racist yearbook photo was him as he initially thought. As Northam resisted growing calls for his resignation, he admitted to a separate instance of blackface: darkening his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance contest. Meanwhile, a separate 1981 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute has surfaced revealing Northam was known by the racist nickname “Coonman” as an undergraduate student there. We get response from Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who is calling for Governor Northam to step down.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Calls are mounting for Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign after a photo surfaced from his medical school yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: That photo, and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents, does not reflect that person I am today or the way that I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor and a public servant. I am deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made, nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today. But I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.

AMY GOODMAN: However, on Saturday, Governor Northam reversed course and, during a news conference, claimed neither of the men in the racist yearbook photo were him as he initially thought. Northam also resisted growing calls for his resignation. This is Northam speaking at the news conference Saturday.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: It was offensive, racist and despicable. When my staff showed me the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time. I did not purchase the EVMS yearbook, and I was unaware of what was on my page. When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page. But I believed then, and now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.

AMY GOODMAN: During that same news conference, Governor Northam admitted to a separate instance of wearing blackface. He admitted he darkened his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance contest. Meanwhile, a separate 1981 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute has surfaced revealing Northam was known by the racist nickname “Coonman” as an undergraduate student there. Northam has denied widespread use of the nickname, claiming two older boys called him the name for reasons he didn’t understand.

The controversy has sparked public outrage and calls across the aisle for Northam’s immediate resignation. On Saturday, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Northam should step down so Virginia could heal and move forward. Nearly every declared Democratic presidential contender in the 2020 race has also called for Northam to resign, as has the NAACP and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

On Sunday evening, Northam reportedly convened an impromptu senior staff meeting ahead of the Super Bowl to gauge support from his staff for his continued leadership. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was reportedly not in attendance. Fairfax is next in line to become governor of Virginia, if Northam resigns. When sworn into office last year, Fairfax reportedly had in his pocket the document that emancipated his great-great-great-grandfather from slavery. If Fairfax were to become governor, he would be the only African-American governor in the country.

For more, we’re joined in Richmond, Virginia, by Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us. Governor Northam called you on Friday — is that right? — to have a meeting to decide what to do, before he changed his story on Saturday. Tell us who he met with in that meeting and what he told you.

LAMONT BAGBY: Well, it was a meeting that we both decided that we needed to have. And in that meeting, I took 10 of my Virginia Legislative Black Caucus colleagues, and we talked to the governor directly. It was a bit of an emotional conversation. We got a little bit more insight. Everything that the public and Virginians have heard thus far, he laid out on the table.

We then returned to the Capitol and caucus, as a black caucus, and came to the conclusion that Governor Northam cannot continue as the top elected official in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We then returned to the governor and expressed that we thought it was in the best interest of the commonwealth — and I thought he agreed that it was in the best interest of the commonwealth — and in order for us to start the healing process, that he step aside and allow us to turn a corner.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your response to what happened on Saturday? By then, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which you led, had said he should resign. But then he holds this news conference.

LAMONT BAGBY: Yes. And we were beginning to hear the rumors about him not resigning. And I was attributing that to him getting his ducks in order, preparing for his transition. But then, once we saw the press conference, I think all of us were disappointed in that press conference and the communications that came out from that press conference. I think the governor missed the mark on that one.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the few people who had come out kind of in support for Northam is former Virginia Democratic Congressmember Jim Moran. Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Moran defended Northam’s record and said he should be given a chance to redeem himself.

JIM MORAN: Ralph has expanded Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans. He has promoted the career of his very talented lieutenant governor in every possible way. He’s invested in better preschools and public schools and minority neighborhoods. So we know what he has done as governor.

But even if the worst-case scenario is true, George, I think there is an issue of redemption. Redemption is a very powerful factor in what people are able to accomplish. You know, Ralph understands the endemic racism that has been part of Virginia society for so long. It was 400 years ago, to this year, when the first African Americans were brought as slaves to Point Comfort, the now Fort Monroe. And he understands that legacy better than many people are able to, and I think we ought to give him an opportunity to redeem himself.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Congressman Jim Moran. Your response? You, too, Delegate Lamont Bagby, you have been a longtime supporter of Northam, while he’s been governor.

LAMONT BAGBY: Sure. And as I did yesterday, right after Jim Moran made those statements, I want to make it very clear that Justin Fairfax was not promoted by Ralph Northam. Justin Fairfax is not the lieutenant governor because Ralph Northam selected him. Love Ralph, but Justin Fairfax is lieutenant governor and has been successful as lieutenant governor because of Justin Fairfax.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us a little about who Justin Fairfax is? A remarkable moment when he’s sworn in as lieutenant governor, and he has in his pocket the emancipation papers of his great-great-great-grandfather.

LAMONT BAGBY: Justin Fairfax, I think, is prepared to lead. He’s not perfect. He’s a Blue Devils fan. But Justin Fairfax is prepared to lead. And I don’t want to say that we’re going to throw Ralph out. Ralph Northam has an opportunity to still contribute to the Commonwealth of Virginia, in some of the fashion that he’s already done. So, he can — he will, I would imagine, go back to seeing patients. He will have a voice in the commonwealth, particularly as it relates to reconciliation, redemption and race relations. I think he will have an opportunity to have a loud voice. I just don’t believe he has the opportunity to continue as the highest-ranking elected official in the commonwealth, with all that has transpired and the revelations from Friday.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, for the second year in a row, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax sat out a session of the Virginia Senate, over which he presides, as the body honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Fairfax tweeted, “History repeats itself. I will be stepping off the dais today in protest of the Virginia Senate honoring Robert E. Lee. I’ll be thinking of this June 5, 1798 manumission document that freed my great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery in Virginia. #WeRiseTogether.” Fairfax had those emancipation papers in his pocket when he was sworn in. Talk about that scene and what that was all about.

LAMONT BAGBY: Well, I think it illustrated who the man Justin Fairfax is. I also want to make sure that we make very clear Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, the Black Caucus, the House caucus, both sides of the aisle, have worked together to make sure that the most vulnerable of our citizens receive the services and the equity and the justice that they deserve. Just Friday, at around 1:00, I gave a floor speech that shared that the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. And over the time, we have worked with Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax in the interest of those most vulnerable individuals in every corner of the commonwealth. And so, we don’t want to discount the work that either of them have done. But just as we said no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests, that was challenged on Friday, when we had these revelations. And we had to go to our dear friend, the governor of the commonwealth, Ralph Northam, and ask for him to step aside —

AMY GOODMAN: And, Chairman Bagby —

LAMONT BAGBY: — but him to continue the work —

AMY GOODMAN: What is your understanding of the meeting last night, the emergency meeting that Governor Northam called of his staff?

LAMONT BAGBY: Amy, I’m going to be frank with you. I decided I was going to take a break, prepare for your show and watch the Super Bowl. And so, after that, I went to bed. And we are prepared to caucus, just after I come off with you. Matter of fact, my Virginia Legislative Black Caucus members are waiting for me. And then we will go into the Democratic Caucus, House caucus meeting. And then we will go onto the floor. And this is the day before crossover. For those individuals that aren’t familiar with crossover in the state of Virginia, Commonwealth of Virginia, this is the day where House bills go over to the Senate and Senate bills go over to the House, one of the busiest days of our session. And so, we have to be mindful that we were sent here to do the work. And now it’s time for us to go be recommitted to doing the work.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lamont Bagby, I want to thank you so much for being with us, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. When we come back, we go to Durham, North Carolina, where we’ll be joined by Reverend Kevin Chandler, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Stay with us.