Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam canceled the first stop on his apology tour following a letter from the Virginia Union University student government asking him to not attend a chapel service Thursday honoring a group of 1960s-era civil rights protesters.
Northam announced the cancellation on his Twitter account Wednesday evening.
“I appreciate the original invitation of VUU’s administration, but I will abide by the students’ wishes. I accept the Student Government Association’s invitation for future dialogue and honest conversation issues of race, reconciliation and equity,” Northam said in a letter posted to his account.
“I welcome opportunities to listen, learn and discuss how we can move Virginia forward,” Northam added.
The governor’s decision not to attend the service follows a letter from the student government asking that he delay the visit and instead attend a separate event in the future to discuss race, reconciliation and equity.
The Virginia governor has been engulfed in controversy after a photo on an old medical school yearbook page of his surfaced, showing one person in blackface and another dressed in the Ku Klux Klan’s signature white hood and robes. Northam initially apologized and agreed he was in the photo, but the next day changed his position and said that was not him in the picture. Northam did say he recalled darkening his skin for a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984.
The group being honored at the event is the Richmond 34, a group of students from the historically black university who were arrested in 1960 after participating in a nonviolent sit-in at the lunch counter of Thalhimers department store in Richmond. After the students sat down at the “whites only” counter and demanded to be served, they were arrested and charged with trespassing.
Their case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where the students were found not guilty. The ruling was a major victory for the civil rights movement in America, and played a key role in desegregating Richmond.
Northam still plans to meet with the Richmond 34, and he said in a letter to the student government president that he will host the group at the Executive Mansion on Friday.
Despite calls for the embattled governor to step down, Northam has said he has no plans to resign. He told Cabinet members that if he does he will be resigning as a “racist for life,” according to a source in that meeting, and said he would stay in office to clear his name and convince people he is not in the photo and the picture doesn’t represent who he is.
In an appearance on CBS, Northam told Gayle King he has since learned that he “was born in white privilege” and “why the use of blackface is so offensive.” He called slaves from Africa “indentured servants” before then acknowledging that the practice was slavery.
The cancellation of Northam’s appearance comes as Virginia’s top three elected officials remain embroiled in scandals. After the photo from Northam’s yearbook page surfaced, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had appeared in blackface at a 1980 college party, further plunging the state Democratic Party into chaos.
And Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assault, including rape by one of them. Fairfax has vehemently denied the allegations. While he has acknowledged interactions with the women, he said both instances were consensual.