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Virginia governor says he "overreacted" with initial apology for racist photo

CBS News logo CBS News 2/11/2019 CBSNews
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he's "not going anywhere" in spite of a racist photo printed in his medical school yearbook. The Democratic lawmaker admitted to "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King he "overreacted" when he initially apologized for appearing in the photograph of two men – one wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume – on his 1984 yearbook page.

"When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, 'This is not me in the picture,'" Northam said. "And I also had a number of friends and classmates from medical school that called and said Ralph that is not you and that was comforting as well."

"But governor, that's a hell of an overreaction for something that is so sensitive and so offensive and so explosive to take responsibility without really knowing for 100 percent that that's me," King said.

"Yes, again, when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said, I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in a picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either. And that's why I felt so strongly about going in front of the camera on Saturday and clarifying," Northam said.

But instead of clarifying at a press conference nine days ago, he raised more questions. He changed his response saying he's not either of the people in the photo, but he admitted to wearing shoe polish to darken his face impersonating Michael Jackson for a dance competition. 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said racist photo controversy happened for "a reason"

When the picture surfaced earlier this month, Northam said it was the first time he had seen it.

a man and a woman wearing a suit and tie © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. "How can that be? It's on your yearbook page, governor," King said.   "Well, I was shocked to see it. And I really believe that the fact that if you look at the unpreparedness of me to react to this, both on Friday night and Saturday, that really confirms that this is the first time," Northam said.

He now said this is a teaching moment for himself and the country.

"I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it," Northam said, adding, "I didn't realize really the powerful implications of that. And again talking to a lot of friends, that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in."

A Washington Post poll this weekend shows Virginians are split on whether he should stay in office, but more than half of black Virginians do not think he needs to step down. 

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