Virginia governor says he was not in racist yearbook photo
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said during a press conference Saturday that he did not appear in the racist photograph from his medical school yearbook page that surfaced on Friday. Northam’s communications director, Ofirah Yheskel, told CBS News Saturday that the governor is not resigning.
The yearbook photo shows two people — one who appears to be wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam said Friday he is pictured in the photo.
But on Saturday, he changed the story. “I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in the photo,” Northam said.
He acknowledged that the photo was “disgusting,” “racist,” and ‘offensive.” But he claimed that when he was shown the yearbook Friday, he was seeing it for the first time. “I was unaware of what was on my page,” he said.
“I am not and will not excuse the content of the photo,” Northam told reporters Saturday. He claimed that when he was shown the yearbook Friday, he was seeing it “for the first time.” He told reporters that he was not involved in the preparation of the yearbook, nor did he buy one.
He acknowledged that it may be difficult for people to believe this. Northam added that he had spoken to a former classmate who said that several photos in that specific yearbook were placed on the wrong pages. He said that he submitted the other three photos on the page, but not the one that featured blackface and KKK costumes.
“It has taken time for me to make sure it’s not me…but I am convinced” it is not, Northam continued.
Northam admitted that he darkened his skin using shoe polish to perform as Michael Jackson in a dance conference in San Antonio in that same year. He said that at the time he did not find it “unacceptable,” but he now does. He said that he believed the yearbook photo was more offensive and “horrific.”
“It’s because my memory of that episode is vivid, I truly do not believe I am in that picture,” Northam continued. He also said that “there is no way I have ever been in a KKK uniform,” meaning that he was not the person in the KKK costume in the photo.
“The person I was is not the man I am today,” he said, adding that he would not resign but instead seek forgiveness from the people of Virginia. Northam said that he hoped that this incident would allow for a conversation on racial issues.
“This has hurt a lot of people in our party…and it has hurt Virginians,” Northam said. He continued that he would earn the trust of those in his party through “communication.” Northam repeatedly said that he wanted to “set the record straight.”
However, he said that if “we get a point where we feel we are no longer effective,” he would reconsider his position.
Northam has faced immense pressure from Republicans and Democrats to resign. A statement from the Virginia Democratic Party released Saturday morning indicated that he may not do so.
“We made the decision to let Governor Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning – we have gotten word he will not do so this morning,” the statement from Chairwoman Susan Swecker said.
The yearbook page, which was first published on the conservative news site Big League Politics, is from the 1984 East Virginia Medical School yearbook. Northam, a pediatrician, graduated that year.
A caption for the photo reads: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.” A reporter from CBS News affiliate News 3, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk and found the page on which the photo appears.
Northam released a statement Friday afternoon apologizing, saying, “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.”
“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,” Northam said. “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.”
CBS News also uncovered a page from Northam’s yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute that listed nicknames underneath his name. One of them was “Coonman,” a racial slur.
Northam told reporters Saturday that only two people referred to him as “Coonman,” but that he did regret its presence in the yearbook.
Despite his apology, Northam has faced widespread calls to step down. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released a statement during Northam’s comments to “amplify” their call on the governor to resign.
“He has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve. Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust,” the caucus said.
“Gov. Northam should resign, this type of character flaw is unacceptable for any elected official seeking the support of the Black vote,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement. “It’s sad but eerily prophetic this revelation came during Black History Month; but while we uplift the current and historical achievements of African Americans, we must also acknowledge the extent to which racism is a part of our history in America.”
Several prominent black political figures deemed Northam’s apology insufficient, including Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass and House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries.
“Ralph Northam served in our nation’s military, treated thousands of families as a medical doctor, and had the audacity to ask for Black votes when he wanted to become governor, yet never once mentioned that he thought it was ok to be in black face or dressed as a Klansman,” Bass said in a statement. “An apology now isn’t enough. The governor needs to learn that it’s not about what you do once you’re caught. Instead, it’s about the things you do when you think no one is watching.”
Several members of the Virginia congressional delegation, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called on him to step down.
Former Vice President Joe Biden called on him to resign immediately in a tweet Saturday. Several Democratic presidential candidates urged Northam to step down, too. Statements ensued from Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Julián Castro and John Delaney.
The chairwoman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, Gov. Gina Raimondo, has also urged him to resign.
The president of Eastern Virginia Medical School said in a statement released Saturday that the “picture is shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold.”
“On behalf of our beloved EVMS, I sincerely apologize for the past transgressions of your trust,” EVMS President Richard Homan said.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is only the second black man to hold statewide office in Virginia history, would become governor if Northam resigns. Fairfax is a 39-year-old former attorney who made national news last month for sitting out a ceremony celebrating the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The descendant of slaves, Fairfax said celebrating Lee’s birthday was “hurtful,” according to The Washington Post.