Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Admits to Michael Jackson Blackface

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the governor's mansion on Feb. 2, 2019 in Richmond, Va.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has admitted to wearing blackface while dressing up like Michael Jackson at a dance contest around the time he was in medical school.

Northam made the admission Saturday (Feb. 2) at a press conference where he denied being in a photo that shows a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan costume. That image appeared alongside photos of Northam in his medical school yearbook in 1984 and has sparked a torrent of calls for his resignation.

The Democratic governor said he darkened his face with “a little bit” of shoe polish for his Michael Jackson costume at a 1984 San Antonio talent show. Northam said he regrets that he didn’t understand “the harmful legacy of an action like that.”

A man who went to medical school with Ralph Northam says he also didn’t buy the class’s 1984 yearbook or see it until decades after it was published.

Walt Broadnax is one of two black students who graduated with Northam. He said by phone Saturday that students submitted photos for someone else to lay out. Broadnax saw his yearbook page for the first time Saturday. He said it turned out how he intended with photos of family and a woman he was dating.

Broadnax defended Northam and said he’s not a racist. He said he believes Northam’s statement that he wasn’t in the photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK costume. He said the school never would have tolerated someone going to a party in blackface.

Virginia’s lieutenant governor says the state needs leaders who can unite people and “help us rise to the better angels of our nature.”

If Gov. Ralph Northam were to resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the second African-American governor of Virginia.

In his statement issued Saturday, Fairfax doesn’t call for Northam to resign because of racist photos on Northam’s 1984 yearbook profile page. But Fairfax does say that he “cannot condone actions from [the governor’s] past” that at least “suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”

Northam said Saturday that he hadn’t seen photos of one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan until someone showed them to him Friday. He says he won’t resign despite widespread calls that he step aside and let Fairfax lead Virginia.

His refusal to resign signals a potential bruising fight between Northam and his former supporters. Leaders in both parties have repeatedly urged Northam to resign, saying he’s lost the public’s trust.

The president of Eastern Virginia Medical School says the racist photo that appears in the 1984 student yearbook is “shockingly abhorrent.” In a statement on the school’s website, President Richard Homan said the photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood is “absolutely antithetical” to the school’s principles, morals and values. The photo was on the profile page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who says he believes he’s not one of the men in the picture.​ Homan also apologized for “past transgressions of your trust.” He said he’ll convene a meeting of leadership and others to address the issue

North Carolina’s governor is also calling on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign because of the photograph on Northam’s yearbook profile page. In an emailed statement, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the photograph is both reprehensible and deeply disappointing. He said the photo comes “with pain beyond what many of us can even understand.” Cooper called Northam’s resignation “the only way forward.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the photograph on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook profile page “racist and contrary to fundamental American values.” She said Saturday via Twitter that she is joining her colleagues in Virginia in calling for Northam “to do the right thing” so that the people in Virginia can heal and move on.

The Virginia Democratic Party and top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly also called on Northam to resign.

House Speaker Kirk Cox and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment said Saturday the governor had lost the public’s confidence, and it is in the state’s best interests for him to step down.

The Republicans join a growing chorus of elected officials in Virginia and elsewhere calling for Northam’s resignation.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus and the state Senate Democratic Caucus all called on Northam to resign late Friday, along with several key progressive groups that have been some of the governor’s closest political allies.