RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to civil rights leaders Friday to "do everything that I can do bring good from what happened" after a scandal over a racist yearbook photo and an admission of wearing blackface imperiled his governorship earlier this month.
Northam met with members of the Richmond 34 — former Virginia Union University students who protested segregation at a department store nearly 60 years ago — at an Executive Mansion breakfast Friday. The event came a day after Northam canceled an appearance at the historically black college to honor the group in what was supposed to be his second public event since the yearbook scandal broke three weeks ago.
"This last few weeks have been difficult and hurtful for Virginia and for this country, and I regret that," Northam said at the breakfast. "I will do everything that I can to bring good from what happened."
He added that he believed Virginia had a "unique opportunity to really take action" to address "tremendous inequities."
Northam was supposed to take part in a public tribute to the Richmond 34 Thursday on the campus. But he canceled his appearance after students asked him not to come, saying his presence could overshadow the event.
Members of the group said they were receptive to the governor's approach and appreciated that he spent much of the breakfast listening to their stories.
"He knows that we are in his corner," Elizabeth Johnson Rice, a member of the group said.
Anderson Franklin, who works at Boston College, said he was glad that Northam was open to having the breakfast.
"I thought it was a very gracious and a very important meeting," Franklin said.
He said that some of the conversation focused on the fact that some members of the Richmond 34 still haven't had their arrest records expunged. Members of the group were charged with trespassing, convicted and fined after trying to integrate the dining facility at the Thalhimers department store in downtown Richmond. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1963.
Northam has indicated he wants to make criminal justice reform a key part of his efforts to win back support of the black community during his remaining three years in office. Other areas of focus include helping minority-owned businesses and improving health outcomes of minority patients.
Leaders throughout Virginia's political structure have called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced at the beginning of the month.
Northam apologized, initially saying he appeared in a photo showing one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam did not say which costume he wore. The next day he said he no longer believed he was in the photo but acknowledged wearing blackface the same year to look like Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
The political pressure for his ouster lessened considerably as scandals have enveloped his would-be successors. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has denied allegations from two women that he sexually assaulted them, and Attorney General Mark Herring said he wore blackface in college, making the public admission just a few days after calling for Northam to resign.
Northam has largely stayed out of sight since then, with his only other public event being the funeral of a state trooper.