As Virginia Governor Waffles on Blackface Yearbook Photo, NAACP Leader Calls His Apology “Invalid”

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Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is facing calls to resign after a photo surfaced on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam apologized for the photo on Friday, but walked back his statements on Saturday, claiming neither of the men in the photo was him. He did admit to using blackface to portray Michael Jackson at a dance contest. We speak with Reverend Kevin Chandler, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at calls for Democratic Virginia Governor Northam to resign after a photo surfaced on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam apologized for the photo Friday but then walked back his statement Saturday during a news conference, claiming neither of the men in the photo were him, although he did admit to using blackface to portray Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

In Durham, North Carolina, we’re joined by Reverend Kevin Chandler, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. The NAACP, early on, came out for the resignation of Governor Northam on Friday—first day of African American History Month—when the picture first emerged and when, at the time, Reverend Chandler, Governor Northam admitted the picture—said, you know, this was a picture of him, not clear which one it was, the KKK guy or the guy in blackface, but then, the next day, held a news conference where he said it wasn’t him, although he had worn blackface before, impersonating Michael Jackson in a dance contest. Reverend Chandler, what are you calling for now?

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: Virginia State Conference NAACP is calling and demanding for Ralph Northam to step down as the governor of Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you want this to happen now and what you understand the governor will do. He did hold a meeting last night with his staff, weighing—weighing that he would step down as governor, although he said the day before he wouldn’t.

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: Yes. So, on Friday evening, prior to the governor going on national television to apologize, he gave me a call, just as he’s done before. And the governor was very apologetic in what had taken place. He stated that that day was the worst day of his career in office, and he wanted to reach out to me prior to him going on live television. So, on Saturday morning—

AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say to you, and what did you say to him?

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: I told him I could understand where he felt that this was the worst day, and I heard him, and I felt his apology was sincere and genuine. And so, on Saturday morning, when I heard of the press conference, Virginia State Conference NAACP executive committee was actually in session. We were having our quarterly meeting. And we were expecting the governor to resign at that time, and, later on, finding out that that was not the case, and now he was denying that it was him.

And so, his apology, in some ways, was invalid, when he called me on Friday, because his apology, once again—as I said, it was once before, I received a call from the governor, and he apologized, of him, just recently, in Halloween, some three months ago, dressing up as a former governor and slave owner, and so—and him apologizing for that. And hearing him say that he is a better man than back in 1984, when the pictures were there in his yearbook, I can’t see where it is that he has changed, if he doesn’t really have a connection with the hurt that all of the racism and—someone dressing in blackface is not accepted at any time. And at 25 years old, I’m sure that he should have known better. Even with the picture being beside someone in a Ku Klux Klan uniform is just unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back to Northam’s news conference on Saturday, when he was asked about his high school nickname, quote, “Coonman.”

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: My main nickname in high school and in college was “Goose,” because when my voice was changing, I would change an octave. There were two individuals, as best I can recollect, at VMI—they were a year ahead of me—that called me “Coonman.” I don’t know their motives or intent. I know who they are. But that was the extent of that. And it ended up in the yearbook, and I regret that.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Kevin Chandler, your response?

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: I understand him being regretful of that, but in saying that he doesn’t know why they called him that, and also to have that being printed in material under his picture, you know, I don’t think I would have anything such as that if I did not understand what it meant.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he doesn’t know why he was called that. He doesn’t remember, to the best of his ability, the photograph, which is why he said—and if you could explain—on Friday, he thought the photograph was of him, not clear if the man in blackface or the Ku Klux Klan regalia, and, the next day, said, no, he’s pretty sure it’s not him, though he does remember this time of dancing as Michael Jackson. And amazingly, when someone asked him to do the moonwalk, he looked like he was finding some space for it, until his wife, behind him, said that’s inappropriate.

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: Yes. And I was so glad that he did not do that, because, again, he, in some way, does not connect with the hurt and the racism and how it affects the citizens of Virginia. And so, in him saying he does not see how this is offensive, even in dressing up as Michael Jackson and putting on a little bit of shoe polish, in blackface—blackface is blackface. And again, it should not be accepted, condoned at any time.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this is the 400th anniversary, Reverend Kevin Chandler, of enslaved Africans being first brought to Jamestown. Can you talk about the significance of this for Virginia, and what it would mean if the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, becomes governor, the only black governor in the country?

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: It is a time of Virginia getting past the hurtful history which it has. And when we deal with this racism, whether it be Charlottesville, whether it be photos in a yearbook, whether it be an EMT worker in Patrick County, it cannot happen. And we, as citizens, in 2019, should be beyond this thing of racism. Although Virginia has a history, we cannot deny that history, but we don’t need to continue to relive that.

And so, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax spoke volumes in where it was—he sat out. He was there by himself. And just seeing that picture of him sitting there by himself. The Virginia State Conference, as he becomes the governor, we will stand beside him in the efforts of moving Virginia forward and healing. And so, the main focus should be healing. I think that Ralph Northam should also consider the Virginians and step down, step aside, and allow Virginia to move forward and heal. And as I heard Delegate Bagby say, there’s a lot of work that has to be done. And with this hanging over Virginia, I think that it’s continuing to hinder the process of the great work that needs to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: If he refuses to step down, which he might by the time some people watch this broadcast, or listen to it or read it, do you think the Virginia Legislature should impeach him?

REV. KEVIN CHANDLER: I think that they have stated that that’s the process and what they are planning to do. I do agree with that, again, because he has betrayed the trust of Virginians. He has betrayed the trust of so many on his side, even the party. And again, this is not a party issue, but he has to work with the Democratic Party. He has to work with the Republican Party. And many have stated, loudly, that he should step aside. And so, as a person, I think that he is able to redeem himself. But as the governor, I don’t foresee him being able to conduct the business of the leadership of Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Kevin Chandler, thanks so much for joining us from Durham, North Carolina, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.

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