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Virginia governor says he was not in racist yearbook photo

Gov. Ralph Northam will not resign
Gov. Ralph Northam says he won't resign 07:03

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said during a press conference Saturday that he did not appear in the racist photograph from his medical school yearbook page that surfaced on Friday. Northam's communications director, Ofirah Yheskel, told CBS News Saturday that the governor is not resigning.

The yearbook photo shows two people — one who appears to be wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam said Friday he is pictured in the photo. 

But on Saturday, he changed the story. "I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in the photo," Northam said. 

He acknowledged that the photo was "disgusting," "racist," and 'offensive." But he claimed that when he was shown the yearbook Friday, he was seeing it for the first time. "I was unaware of what was on my page," he said.

"I am not and will not excuse the content of the photo," Northam told reporters Saturday. He claimed that when he was shown the yearbook Friday, he was seeing it "for the first time." He told reporters that he was not involved in the preparation of the yearbook, nor did he buy one.

He acknowledged that it may be difficult for people to believe this. Northam added that he had spoken to a former classmate who said that several photos in that specific yearbook were placed on the wrong pages. He said that he submitted the other three photos on the page, but not the one that featured blackface and KKK costumes.

"It has taken time for me to make sure it's not me... but I am convinced" it is not, Northam continued.

Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page WTKR-3 Brendan Ponton

Northam admitted that he darkened his skin using shoe polish to perform as Michael Jackson in a dance conference in San Antonio that same year. He said he did not find it "unacceptable" at the time, but he now does. He said that he believed the yearbook photo was more offensive and "horrific."

"It's because my memory of that episode is vivid, I truly do not believe I am in that picture," Northam continued. He also said that "there is no way I have ever been in a KKK uniform," meaning that he was not the person in the KKK costume in the photo.

"The person I was is not the man I am today," he said, adding that he would not resign but instead seek forgiveness from the people of Virginia. Northam said that he hoped that this incident would allow for a conversation on racial issues.

"This has hurt a lot of people in our party...and it has hurt Virginians," Northam said. He continued that he would earn the trust of those in his party through "communication." Northam repeatedly said that he wanted to "set the record straight."

However, he said that if "we get [to] a point where we feel we are no longer effective," he would reconsider his position.

Northam has faced immense pressure from Republicans and Democrats to resign.

On Saturday night, President Trump posted two tweets about Northam. In the first, Mr. Trump wrote that Northam said he was not one of the people in the photo "24 hours after apologizing for appearing in the picture and after making the most horrible statement on "super" late term abortion. Unforgivable!"

In the second tweet, Mr. Trump said Northam's Republican challenger Ed Gillespie "must now be thinking Malpractice and Dereliction of Duty with regard to his Opposition Research Staff. If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!"

The yearbook page, which was first published on the conservative news site Big League Politics, is from the 1984 East Virginia Medical School yearbook. Northam, a pediatrician, graduated that year.

A caption for the photo reads: "There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I'll have another beer." A reporter from CBS affiliate WTKR, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk and found the page on which the photo appears.

CBS News also uncovered a page from Northam's yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute that listed nicknames underneath his name. One of them was "Coonman," a racial slur.  

Northam told reporters Saturday that only two people referred to him as "Coonman," but that he did regret its presence in the yearbook.

Despite his apology, Northam has faced widespread calls to step down. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released a statement during Northam's comments to "amplify" their call on the governor to resign.

"He has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve. Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust," the caucus said.

"Gov. Northam should resign, this type of character flaw is unacceptable for any elected official seeking the support of the Black vote," Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement. "It's sad but eerily prophetic this revelation came during Black History Month; but while we uplift the current and historical achievements of African Americans, we must also acknowledge the extent to which racism is a part of our history in America."

Several prominent black political figures deemed Northam's apology insufficient, including Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass and House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries.

"Ralph Northam served in our nation's military, treated thousands of families as a medical doctor, and had the audacity to ask for Black votes when he wanted to become governor, yet never once mentioned that he thought it was ok to be in black face or dressed as a Klansman," Bass said in a statement. "An apology now isn't enough. The governor needs to learn that it's not about what you do once you're caught. Instead, it's about the things you do when you think no one is watching."

Several members of the Virginia congressional delegation, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called on him to step down.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called on him to resign immediately in a tweet Saturday. Several Democratic presidential candidates urged Northam to step down, too. Statements ensued from Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Julián Castro and John Delaney.

The chairwoman of the Democratic Governors' Association, Gov. Gina Raimondo, has also urged him to resign.

The president of Eastern Virginia Medical School said in a statement released Saturday that the "picture is shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold."

"On behalf of our beloved EVMS, I sincerely apologize for the past transgressions of your trust," EVMS President Richard Homan said.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is the second African-American to serve in statewide office in Virginia history, offered a response Saturday, although he did not call for Northam to resign outright. Fairfax would become governor if Northam resigns. 

"The Governor needed to apologize, and I am glad that he did so. He also reached out to me personally to express his sincere regrets and to apologize," Fairfax said, adding that he had worked closely with the governor and considered him a friend.

"While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers, and constituents, I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia's darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation," Fairfax said. "At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature."

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring went a step further and called on Northam to step down, saying that Fairfax would have his "complete support and commitment to ensuring his success" if Fairfax became governor.

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