Virginia Governor Ralph Northam hoped that today would kickoff his statewide apology tour. But last night, his first attempt to atone for the yearbook photo of a klansman and man in blackface, and for wearing blackface to moonwalk as Michael Jackson, fell apart.
The governor doesn't deny moonwalking, but he does deny he's in the photo on his yearbook page.
The governor planned to appear at historically black Virginia Union University for an event honoring the Richmond 34 civil rights activists. While some of the honorees were happy to let their ceremony serve as a place for the Governor to begin learning and apologizing for his racist act, the current VUU student body felt blindsided.
VUU’s Student Government Association President, Jamon Phenix, penned a letter addressed to Governor Northam demanding he back out of the event, explaining that the students “feel as though your presence takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration.”
Phenix says he invites the Governor to return to campus later this year. When asked why he would delay the chance to reconcile, Phenix told VICE News that the Governor’s mere presence at the event, without the opportunity for students to ask questions or have a discussion, didn’t add value. “There was no real reconciliation. If he was to attend, he would not be on the platform and he would not have said anything. Where’s the reconciliation inside of just a presence?”
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Richmond 34, disagreed. In 1960, she and her peers entered Thalhimers department store, sat down at a whites-only counter, and were arrested and charged with trespassing. As alarmed as she was that Northam had dressed in blackface, she believes firmly in second chances. “Northam may have trespassed against the black community,” she conceded. “But the word is forgiveness. And that's, that's what my heart said that he deserves.”
VICE News met with current and former VUU students in Richmond, VA. Though Governor Northam wasn't in the room, the question of whether or not he was worthy of reconciliation certainly was.