Rev. Al Sharpton has seen enough out of Virginia.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted over the weekend in a bizarre press conference to having worn blackface in the past for a costume, while denying that he was one of the people either wearing blackface or in a Klan robe in a picture on his medical school yearbook page. On Wednesday, Mark Herring, the state’s attorney general and the third in line for succession to the governor’s office, admitted in a statement that he had once worn blackface at a college party in 1980.
Sharpton is now preparing to ramp up pressure on two of the top three elected officials in the Commonwealth. In an interview with BuzzFeed News during which he asserted for the first time that he believed Herring needed to step down, Sharpton said that on Thursday he plans to lead a group of multiracial interfaith leaders at a rally. It comes after Northam has resisted any calls to resign, and Herring has said he would have conversations over the coming days to determine if he can continue in his role. Sharpton's followers, including people who call into his nationally syndicated radio show, are “furious,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Sharpton will headline the event, dubbed “Race & Reconciliation: Reflections on Faith, Community & Racial Reconciliation in the Commonwealth,” at historically black Virginia Union University on Thursday. (Students are being asked to wear “professional attire.”)
“We must deal with the fact that there’s a constitutional crisis in Virginia and that it’s based on race on the 400th anniversary that we were brought here as slaves to Virginia,” said Sharpton, referring to the African people referred to as “twenty and odd negroes” who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. They are known as the first people from the African continent to ever arrive in North America. “For us to now see leading officials admitting they engaged in overt racist behavior — not slip of the tongue or street talk — affirms this was an act of them mocking blacks using a tradition designed to dehumanize us.”
Sharpton, for whom dramatizing events to turn up the heat on various injustices has long been a calling card, told BuzzFeed News that a coalition of black and white people standing together in opposition to what Northam and Herring have done will help make it a national issue. Sharpton suggested that the anniversary, paired with the men's actions — such as wantonly invoking the names of black entertainers such as the late Michael Jackson and Kurtis Blow as part of their explanations — has only steeled his resolve to see them relieved of their duties.
In particular, Sharpton said he felt that Northam further mocked black people by his insistence over the weekend that while that was not him in the yearbook photo, that he had worn blackface before as part of a gag. “It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I didn’t rob Wells Fargo bank, but I did rob Bank of America.’ Well, you’re still a bank robber.” Sharpton reiterated that among all the fans he saw dressed as Michael while working on Jackson’s 1984 tour in a community relations role, he never once saw one in blackface.
Sharpton told BuzzFeed News he sees political implications for how this story is dovetailing with other issues, and racial justice quickly climbing to the forefront of issues in the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. While he doesn’t blame Trump for the blackface the men put on decades ago, he said that the climate created by his response to Nazis and Americans protesting against them in Charlottesville in 2017 frenzies an already sensitive topic.
“He has a responsibility to deal with it,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said his move to dramatize the issue and seek a timely resolution is unrelated to that facing Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is being accused of a 2004 sexual assault. He said the allegation against Fairfax should be “totally and properly” investigated, and that each case has to be taken seriously.
“We’re talking about a situation that has to be judged based on the allegations of [people] in a relationship, as opposed to people who mocked a whole race based on white supremacy.”