With Juneteenth holiday, Northam turns his greatest liability into a redemptive moment

June 22, 2020 12:01 am

Protesters turn on their cell phone lights to honor the victims of police violence as they observe a minute of silence on June 19, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law. (Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images)

Give Gov. Ralph Northam this: He recognized a transformative moment when he saw it, and he seized it to improve Virginia and possibly the way history will regard him.  

Fourteen months ago, Northam became a national pariah one moonwalk away from being hounded from office over a photo of one man in blackface and another in Klan regalia that was published on his medical school yearbook page 35 years earlier.

In the bewildering aftermath, he at first admitted he was in the photo, then recanted it the next day, but apologetically promised to prove himself and redeem his governorship, particularly in the eyes of Virginians of color.

Eyes rolled. Jaws dropped. Heads shook. Allies abandoned him. Calls for his resignation were universal and deafening.

Time passed. Northam abided.

On Tuesday, he made good on his redemption, using his executive authority to give virtually the entire state government workforce a paid day off on Friday, June 19 – Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the date in 1865 that emancipation from slavery was completed.

In addition to his unilateral action as the ultimate boss of every executive branch state employee, Northam promised legislation to make the day an official annual holiday by force of law.

A governor whose clumsy management of Virginia’s coronavirus response had brought him recent criticism hit all the right notes Tuesday in a state yearning to make peace with a troubled racial past 401 years old. He was direct and blunt in acknowledging those wrongs and challenging hoary shibboleths.

“We must remember that Black history is American history,” said Northam, who was flanked by African American lawmakers and Virginia-born pop music superstar Pharrell Williams.

“Throughout American history, we’ve struggled to live up to our own ideals of freedom and justice for all. Since 1619, when representative democracy and enslaved African people arrived in Virginia within a month of each other, we have said one thing, but we’ve done another,” Northam said.

“It’s time we elevate this – not just a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us,” he said.

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion in February, 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Sure, it was symbolic. Northam conceded as much.

“…(S)ymbols do matter. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep Confederate flags and statues up. Symbols show what we value. It is a step toward reconciliation. It is a step toward the Virginia we want to be,” he said. “It is a step toward the Virginia we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.”

He also acknowledged the heavy lifting ahead to bring about reforms necessary to fully extend equality and opportunity to people of color in areas such as employment, housing, education and criminal justice.

But for the moment – especially this moment – it was a convincing and sorely needed symbol that voices unheard for centuries now have an attentive and powerful audience.

Virginia has been both resistant and enigmatic on the matters of race. Here slaves from Africa first set foot in British colonial America. It was the seat of Confederate government and the venue of more Civil War engagements (124) than any state, North or South. At the onset of the war, Virginia’s slave population of nearly 491,000 was the largest of any state and accounted for more than 12 percent of the 3.95 million slaves in the United States as of the 1860 U.S. census. In 1989, Virginia voters made a grandson of slaves America’s first elected Black governor.

Virginia-born Black lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson III represented Black children who walked out of a segregated public school in Farmville to protest its deplorable conditions in a case that became part of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended “separate-but-equal” schools. Yet Virginia’s avowed segregationist government of the era shamefully closed entire school districts rather than desegregate – a failed, infamous effort known as “Massive Resistance.”

For 16 years, Virginia relegated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to bottom billing on a January state holiday shared with Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson until 2000 when then-Gov. Jim Gilmore made MLK’s birthday its own holiday. “Lee-Jackson Day” remained a state holiday until the General Assembly this year stripped it of the designation and moved the holiday to Election Day each November, making it easier for state workers to vote. (Virginia’s political calendar assures a general election every year.)

Maybe the “blackface” trauma of Feb. 1, 2019, was Northam’s road-to-Damascus moment. Or perhaps, as he said at the time, neither the yearbook photo nor his admission that he had once dabbed shoe polish on his face in the 1980s for a Michael Jackson dance contest reflected what’s in his heart.

A major chance to prove it came as the horrific curbside killing of George Floyd by a White Minneapolis cop ignited the greatest turmoil over racial inequity since the 1960s. After Richmond police charged into hundreds of peaceful protesters with tear gas and pepper spray on June 2 near Lee’s six-story, 130-year-old memorial on Monument Avenue, Northam ordered the statue removed. Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, announced that the city will remove four other Monument Avenue Confederate shrines. Lawsuits have delayed the Lee removal.

Taking down an omnipresent bronze reminder for Blacks of a man whose army defended a society that considered their ancestors property – three-fifths of a person at best – bought Northam a large measure of credibility on the issue that nearly destroyed him.

Building up is even more important, and Northam achieved that by making Juneteenth a holiday. Also known as Emancipation Day, it marks a seminal historic advance for Black people but involves all of Virginia in the celebration.

Northam summed it up with these words: “We’re changing what we honor in Virginia.”

And for the first time in a long time – maybe for the first time in 401 years – it carried the ring of truth.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]