In a bizarre Saturday press conference, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that he would not resign over a racist photo from his medical school yearbook. Northam now says he was not one of the men in the picture, though he admitted to once wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
“I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness,” Northam said, standing alongside his wife.
He claimed that he had never before seen the photo ― which showed a man wearing blackface alongside a man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit ― because he did not purchase the yearbook. He said that when his staff showed him the photo this week, he was seeing it “for the first time.”
At the press conference, Northam called the photo “offensive, racist and despicable” but stated “I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.”
Northam said that he would remember if he had taken that photo because of his “clear memory of other mistakes I made in this same period of my life.” One of those mistakes, he said, involved donning blackface in a different incident around the same time.
“That same year I did participate in a dance content in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume,” he said.
Taking questions at the conference, he said of the costume, “I didn’t realize at the time that it was as offensive as I have since learned.”
He also volunteered that he “actually won the contest because I had learned how to do the moonwalk.”
As the press conference wrapped up, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released a statement saying it was continuing to call for Northam’s resignation. The caucus said that the governor changing his story damaged his ability to regain the public’s trust.
“Our confidence in his ability to govern for the over 8 million Virginians has been eviscerated,” the statement said.
The photo that sparked the scandal originally appeared in Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook. Big League Politics resurfaced images of the page this week.
On Friday, Northam had apologized for the photo in a statement that indicated he was in the picture, saying he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
In the same statement, said that he intended to serve out his term. Since then, however, he had faced mounting calls to resign over the photo, including from the Democratic Party of Virginia. The party tweeted a statement on Saturday morning demanding that Northam step down.
Later Saturday, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would take over Northam’s post if he resigned, said in a statement that the governor reached out to him to apologize for the racist photo. Fairfax also said he “cannot condone the actions of [Northam’s] past,” but did not call for his resignation.
“I remain committed to serving and helping to heal the Commonwealth moving forward,” he said in a statement.
This story has been updated with additional details and a statement from the lieutenant governor.
Sebastian Murdock contributed reporting.