RICHMOND — Elizabeth Johnson Rice said she has seen racists up close, including when she was arrested for sitting at a segregated Richmond lunch counter 59 years ago, and does not think Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is a racist.
Rice, 78, had breakfast with the governor Friday along with other members of the Richmond 34, local civil rights icons who were also recognized by the General Assembly on the anniversary of their act of civil disobedience on Feb. 22, 1960.
Northam has faced widespread calls to resign over a blackface scandal linked to his time in medical school in 1984. On Thursday, he withdrew from appearing at a ceremony honoring the Richmond 34 at Virginia Union University after the president of the student body said Northam’s presence would detract from the solemnity of the occasion.
Instead, Northam invited several members of the group and their families to the Executive Mansion. And while Rice acknowledged that there are many differing opinions about the governor in her circle of African American former protesters, she said she left the breakfast feeling hopeful.
“It was a lovely breakfast, and he was very hospitable,” Rice said. She said that when the scandal broke on Feb. 1, she was “incensed.”
“But after thinking about it and processing it, I found forgiveness,” she said.
The breakfast was closed to the media, although two photographers were allowed in at the beginning. An Associated Press photographer recorded Northam’s brief welcoming remarks to the group, which was seated around the massive table in the mansion’s formal dining room.
“This last few weeks have been difficult and hurtful for Virginia and for this country, and I regret that,” Northam said, according to the video recording. “I will do everything that I can to bring good from what’s happened.”
Echoing other remarks from the few public appearances he has made in the three weeks since the scandal erupted, Northam pledged to listen and learn, and he said much work remains to be done to address “tremendous inequities” in Virginia and the nation.
“We have a unique opportunity, I believe, to really take action and maybe put some of the words behind us,” Northam said. “That’s what we plan to do . . . So I look forward to working with all of you as we move forward.”
Northam, 59, has defied calls for his resignation that have come from most of the political establishment of both parties since a racist photo from his profile page in his 1984 medical school yearbook became public. Northam initially took responsibility for the photo, which depicts one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, but then said he is not in the image and does not know its origin.
However, he revealed that he had darkened his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest later that same year.
He has promised to embark on a “reconciliation tour” around the state to promote racial healing, and had planned to make Virginia Union the first stop on Thursday. The historically black university was honoring the group of former students who marched against racial segregation and were arrested after refusing to leave a lunch counter and a tea room in a Richmond department store.
Rice, who has been a spokeswoman for the Richmond 34 in recent days, disagreed with the stance of the school’s student government and said Northam should attend so he could participate in a dialogue about race.
On Friday, Rice said Northam would go to the university at a later date and that the breakfast meeting had been a good start.
“He knew that we were in his corner,” Rice said. “That things that he’d gone through, he’s not alone, and that we would be talking in the future to get the students of Virginia Union and the governor and the community together, through real reconciliation.”
She noted that Virginia first lady Pamela Northam also attended the breakfast, and that the Richmond 34 members were given commemorative plaques. Having sized up the governor in person, Rice said, she felt comfortable saying that he is sincere and not a racist.
“From what I see and what I feel, no,” she said. “He’s making the effort. He can’t do it by himself, and he needs to embrace others that are trying to help him.”