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Locals add to torrent of criticism after publication of Northam yearbook photo

SoVaNow.com / February 06, 2019
Gov. Ralph Northam is facing mounting calls to step down after the revelation of a racist photograph from his medical school yearbook 35 years ago, with state and national Democrats leading the chorus of demands for the governor to resign.

Contacted this week, Mecklenburg County NAACP Chair Troy Bowers stopped short of calling for Northam’s ouster. He said if the governor “in his heart of hearts knows he did nothing wrong, then he should stand and fight.”

Bowers was quick to add his belief, however, that in order to lead, Northam “must have the confidence of the voters and those under him. It is clear that he does not enjoy the confidence of either the people or the elected officials. Therefore, he must and should do what is in the best interest of the Commonwealth, not what is in the best interest of Ralph Northam.”

Bowers faulted Northam for creating undue confusion, first apologizing for the racist photograph and then walking back his apology but admitting to a separate instance of racially insensitive behavior. “If you are guilty, admit it, ask for forgiveness and move on,” Bowers said.

On Friday, a conservative news site published the image of two grinning students — one wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, the other dressed in blackface — that appeared on Northam’s personal page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook from 1984. Northam, now 59, was finishing up his medical training at the time before going on to become an Army doctor and later, a pediatric neurologist.

The story was confirmed and spread by national media, setting off an uproar that has Northam facing calls to resign from his closest political allies — including the House and Senate Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, as well as Democratic U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and members of Virginia’s congressional delegation. Multiple Democratic candidates for president have also demanded that Northam step down.

Rev. Kevin Chandler, serving his second year as president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, also said this weekend that it is imperative for Northam to go.

“It’s trust betrayed,” said Chandler, who serves as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in South Boston and works locally as a substance abuse counselor. “We need to move forward. I believe he should resign and allow Virginia to heal and move forward.”

As president of the Virginia NAACP, Chandler received a personal call from Northam on Friday night, asking for forgiveness. “He apologized and said this was the worst day of his career. I took him to be sincere in that apology, but then things changed Saturday.”

What happened Saturday — to his surprise, said Chandler — is Northam dug in and refused to quit, instead giving a press conference in which he denied being one of the students in the racist yearbook image. On Friday, as the story attracted national attention, Northam initially said he was in fact one of the students shown in the photo.

At Saturday’s press conference, he retracted that admission, saying he had spoken before having a chance to talk to medical school classmates and searching his own recollection of the times.

“Last night I finally had a chance to sit down and look at the photo in detail,” said Northam, who claimed he does not own the yearbook and had not seen the offending photo before Friday. “It is not me,” Northam told reporters at a hastily arranged Executive Mansion press conference.

Northam admitted, however, to once applying black shoe polish to his face for a dance competition in which he impersonated Michael Jackson. His denials Saturday only seemed to heighten the calls for his resignation, with Warner, Kaine and 3rd District Rep. Bobby Scott, an African American and Virginia’s longest serving congressman, saying afterwards they had lost faith in Northam and he should quit.

Chandler said he, too, was unconvinced by the governor’s explanation and disappointed when he didn’t announce his resignation. He said he voted for Northam in 2017.

“If I were not in the picture and I didn’t do it, I would definitely not apologize for it and I would defend myself,” Chandler said. “Blackface in any form is a form of racism and it should not be accepted or condoned.”

Chandler said that defenses offered on behalf of the governor — that he was young when the incident happened, and what is being held up as racist by present-day standards might be considered merely poor taste in the 1980s — are unconvincing.

“He was old enough to know,” said Chandler. He added, “I truly believe that he would not have been elected had this come out during the campaign. If that’s the case then, it applies to when he’s governor.

“As governor, he should be sensitive to all of his constituents, all of Virginia. I don’t feel he can be effective as a governor going forward, with even his own party telling him he should step down.”

While Bowers said the press may have been hasty in their condemnation of Northam before allowing all the facts to emerge, he added that the Governor’s conduct following the news is, at best, a lapse in judgment, and adds to the confusion about whether he is or is not in the photograph or did or did not submit the photo for inclusion on his yearbook page.

Bowers points to a moment in the press conference when he was asked by a reporter if he could still do the “moonwalk” – a dance move made popular by Michael Jackson. Northam initiated the step before being stopped by his wife.

On the other side of the political aisle, Del. James Edmunds, a Republican lawmaker who represents Charlotte and Halifax counties in the Virginia General Assembly, also said Northam has lost the ability to effectively lead Virginia: “I think he needs to resign. There’s no rebuilding that trust. I just don’t think there’s any way that you can justify it or apologize for it,” said Edmunds this weekend.

Saying that “I do feel sorry for the man,” Edmunds said dressing up as a Klansman and wearing blackface “incite so much division and hatred” that “I can’t imagine being a minority and having to start trusting [Northam] again.

“It seems the more you hear about it, the more things seem to be rising to the surface,” said Edmunds, also referring to Northam’s admission that he donned black shoe polish for the Michael Jackson dance routine.

Edmunds drew a distinction between Northam and President Trump, who has faced numerous accusations of racism and sexism, notably after the airing of video during the 2016 campaign in which he bragged about committing sexual assault of women.

“I know plenty of women who still love Donald Trump, but I don’t know of one single minority that supports what Gov. Northam did,” said Edmunds.

On Monday, members of the Mecklenburg County NAACP planned to meet. Bowers said he expected the topic to “be raised.” He hoped it would spark a conversation. “We have to look forward, black, white and everyone in between and have an honest conversation on race.”

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