Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Friday that he appears in a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page that shows a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. He quickly apologized.
The calls for Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam to resign have mounted a day after a racist yearbook photo surfaced of two individuals, one dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The photo, which appeared in Northam’s 1984 yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School, has put all eyes on his No. 2 — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a descendant of slaves and the second-ever African-American to hold a statewide office in Virginia.
If Northam does eventually step down, Fairfax would replace him. Fairfax issued a statement Saturday saying he was “shocked and saddened” by the yearbook images.
“The governor needed to apologize and I am glad that he did so,” said Fairfax. “He also reached out to me personally to express his sincere regrets and to apologize,” he added. Fairfax did not mention the calls for Northam’s resignation.
Here are three things you should know about the lieutenant governor.
A historic race
Fairfax is the only African-American who currently holds a statewide office – and only the second to do so in Virginia’s history.
The state, which is moving from its southern roots to a move progressive base, elected Fairfax in 2017, the same year as Northam. The two were on separate tickets as Virginia is one of more than a dozen states that does not hold joint tickets for governors and lieutenant governors.
The only other African-American to hold a statewide office was Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who served from 1990 to 1994. Wilder was one of many who called for Northam’s resignation in the aftermath of the yearbook photo.
Fairfax is a former federal prosecutor and attended both Duke University and Columbia Law School.
When he took his Oath of Office, Fairfax carried a copy of the manumission document that freed one of his ancestors from slavery. The Washington Post reported Fairfax’s father gave him a copy of the document just before the ceremony. It was a handwritten deed dated June 5, 1798 that freed Simon Fairfax, who was born into slavery.
Protests against Confederate figures
Fairfax has made it a mission to stand up against the racially-charged history in Virginia.
He stepped out of the state Senate, where he presides, two years in a row as lawmakers honored prominent Confederate figures, including this year with honoring Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Fairfax posted about his silent act of protest in a January tweet, saying instead of honoring Lee, he would be “thinking of this June 5, 1798 manumission document that freed my great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery in Virginia.”
History repeats itself. I will be stepping off the dais today in protest of the Virginia Senate honoring Robert E. Lee. I’ll be thinking of this June 5, 1798 manumission document that freed my great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery in Virginia. #WeRiseTogetherpic.twitter.com/tG0QB9hHdR
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper in the state capital, reported that Fairfax called the decision to honor Lee on his birthday last month on the Senate floor a “divisive” one that “stings a lot of people.”
“Particularly in this year, which is obviously the 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia, in Hampton and Point Comfort, I think it stings a lot of people in particular in a year like this,” Fairfax said, according to the newspaper.
He continued: “To constantly look backwards to a very divisive time and conscript people into honoring someone who — had he prevailed and gotten his way I would not be standing up there on that dais as lieutenant governor of Virginia — I think is something that we should not be doing.”
Next in line?
Northam’s initial apology over the photo has failed to quell a firestorm of bipartisan calls for his immediate resignation. That list includes everyone from former vice president Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe and Northam’s Democratic predecessor as governor to a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and state Democratic lawmakers.
Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former Virginia governors, issued a statement saying that they called Northam after a press conference Saturday in which he rejected calls for his resignation and said that it wasn’t him in the photo, as he originally thought. Warner and Kaine said they told Northam that they don’t believe he can effectively continue to serve as governor.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch said in an editorial that Northam should step down.
The governor had acknowledged that he is one of the two men in the yearbook photo — one in blackface and the other in a full white Ku Klux Klan robe, complete with pointed hood.
“I am 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,” Northam said in a written statement Friday.
Northam vowed to mend the damage he’d caused by the “clearly racist and offensive” photo and veered away from calls asking for his resignation.
On Saturday, Northam tried to distance himself from the photo, telling Democrats in the state that it wasn’t him and despite intense calls from Republicans and Democrats across the nation, he would not resign.
“Governor Northam did reach out to Senator Lucas to say it isn’t him in the picture and that he’s not resigning,” Democratic State Sen. L. Louise Lucas’ office told USA TODAY.
If Northam were to step down in the shadow of the scandal, Fairfax would take over.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote on Twitter that if Northam steps down he will be the first Virginia governor since the Civil War not to complete his term. Sabato also said that if Fairfax finishes Northam’s unexpired term, he will remain eligible to run for a full term in 2021. Under state law, governors are not allowed to run for re-election.