Virginia’s governor has pledged to remain in office after disavowing a blatantly racist photograph that appeared under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
Resisting widespread calls for resignation, Governor Ralph Northam apologised for appearing in the photograph that featured what appeared to be a man in blackface and a second person cloaked in Ku Klux Klan garb.
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In a video posted on Twitter, he said he could not “undo the harm my behaviour caused then and today”.
My fellow Virginians, earlier today I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor. I believe you deserve to hear directly from me. pic.twitter.com/1rSw1oxfrX
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 2, 2019
In an initial apology about the photograph on Friday, Northam admitted to being in the photograph but did not say which of the two costumes he had worn.
That evening, he issued a video statement saying he was “deeply sorry” but still committed to serving the “remainder of my term”, set to end in 2022.
But by Saturday, he made a U-turn and said the photo on his yearbook profile page did not feature him.
The governor said he had not seen the photo before Friday since he had not purchased the commemorative book or been involved in its preparation more than three decades ago.
“It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me. But I am convinced, I am convinced that I am not in that picture,” he told reporters, calling the shot offensive and horrific.
The yearbook images were first published on Friday afternoon by the conservative news outlet Big League Politics. An Associated Press reporter later saw the yearbook page and confirmed its authenticity at the medical school.
On Saturday, local newspaper The Virginian-Pilot uncovered an additional photo from the yearbook in which another student is dressed in blackface.
While talking with reporters, Northam admitted that he had previously worn blackface around that time.
He added that he once used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson costume he wore in a 1984 dance contest in San Antonio, Texas, when he was in the US Army.
After he spoke to reporters, both of Virginia’s US senators said they called Northam to tell him that he must resign.
In a joint statement released on Saturday night, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as well as the dean of Virginia’s congressional delegation Representative Bobby Scott, said the recent events “have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders”.
“He is no longer the best person to lead our state,” the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement.
If Northam resigns Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would become the second black governor in the state’s history.
An ongoing struggle
Virginians continue to struggle with the state’s legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and Massive Resistance, the anti-school segregation push.
A state holiday honouring Confederate Generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson is a perennial source of discontent.
Northam spent years actively courting the black community in the lead-up to his 2017 gubernatorial run, building relationships that helped him win both the primary and the general election.
He is also a member of a predominantly black church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he grew up.
“It’s a matter of relationships and trust. That’s not something that you build overnight,” Northam told the Associated Press during a 2017 campaign stop while describing his relationship with the black community.