In a remarkable Saturday press conference, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam insisted he had nothing to do with a racist photo discovered on his medical school yearbook page, but acknowledged he’d donned blackface on another occasion.
“I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo,” Northam said of the image of a man in blackface and a man in KKK garb.
The Democratic National Committee, Democratic Governor’s Association, Virginia state and House Democrats, and leading Democratic politicians have all called on Northam to immediately resign over the controversy.
But Northam said that listening to the chorus of calls for him to step down would allow him to “spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead,” he continued. “I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past. I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me.”
Northam said he would recall if he were one of the people in the 1984 medical school yearbook picture because he has a clear memory of donning blackface on another occasion.
“That same year I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume,” Northam told the crowd of reporters, later joking that it is difficult to get shoe polish off your face. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”
Northam said that he won the dance contest, and when a reporter asked if he could still moonwalk, he look around to see if there was space to show off the dance move.
He paused after his wife jumped in to say it was an “inappropriate circumstance.”
Northam took question after question at the lengthy press conference, appearing unflustered as reporters asked how he could continue to govern without the support of his own party.
In Northam’s telling, he did not know how the photo ended up on the page of his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook but is certain that he is not one of the two men in it. Northam said he did not purchase the yearbook and had never seen the photograph until it was first surfaced by the media on Friday. In fact, he suggested, it’s possible that the photo was “mistakenly put on the wrong page.”
Calling the image “disgusting” and “offensive,” Northam said he initially apologized for having it on his page before consulting with medical school colleagues and friends and concluding he was not in the photo.
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” Northam said.
Asked about the nickname “coonman” appearing in a different yearbook from his time at the Virginia Military Institute, Northam recalled that two friends did call him that but he didn’t remember why.
“I don’t know what their intent was with that,” Northam said, volunteering that his main nickname was “goose.”
The governor said he hoped the controversy could spark a broader “dialogue” about race and white supremacy in the state.