Alabama Governor Apologizes For College Blackface Incident
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey is the latest politician to apologize for donning blackface while she was in college.
Alabama’s Republican Governor Kay Ivey admitted to once donning blackface during a sorority skit when she was in college, an admission reminiscent of the news out of Virginia earlier this year:
The skit was called “cigar butts,” and a couple of the university students who starred in it thought the performance was hilarious.
Then an Auburn University senior, Ben LaRavia, recounted the act on a campus radio show. It was 1967, at a Baptist Student Union party, and he was there with his fiancee at the time: now his ex-wife and Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.
“Cigar butts,” LaRavia said, involved “crawling around on the floor looking for cigar butts and things like this, which certainly got a big reaction out of the audience.”
It also involved blackface.
LaRavia, chortling as he described Ivey’s outfit, said she wore blue coveralls, “and she had put some black paint all over her face.”
“That was just my role for the evening,” Ivey says later in the interview.
Fifty-two years later, Ivey is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, and on Thursday she apologized for participating in the racist skit while dodging calls for her resignation.
The Alabama governor joins the ever-growing collection of white politicians — from the North and from the South, from areas urban and rural, and from the Democratic and Republican parties — to face scrutiny and scorn for their caricatures of black people inspired by minstrel shows dating back to the 1830s.
“I offer my heartfelt apologies for the pain and embarrassment this causes, and I will do all I can — going forward — to help show the nation that the Alabama of today is a far cry from the Alabama of the 1960s,” Ivey said in a statement. “We have come a long way, for sure, but we still have a long way to go.”
She said she doesn’t recall the skit or the interview, even after listening to the tape. Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, told The Washington Post that Auburn University Libraries discovered the recording during its ongoing effort to digitize old audio. A university representative told the governor’s office on Tuesday evening, and Ivey listened to it on Wednesday morning.
“While some may attempt to excuse this as acceptable behavior for a college student during the mid-1960s, that is not who I am today, and it is not what my Administration represents all these years later,” said Ivey, who is now 74.
After the audio surfaced, state and national leaders condemned Ivey’s actions. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, a Democrat from Selma, called them “reprehensible” and “deeply offensive.”
“Her words of apology ring hollow if not met with real action to bridge the racial divide,” Sewell said on Twitter.
In dueling public statements, local Republicans defended Ivey and praised her for taking responsibility for her actions, and a number of officials across the aisle also said they accepted her apology. But other Alabama Democrats — and the state’s NAACP chapter — called for her to step down.
“She should resign,” state Rep. Juandalynn Givan told the Birmingham News. “I don’t think she should have been elected, and I think she is a racist.”
“I don’t care if it was 52 years ago or yesterday,” Givan said. “She is the governor of the state of Alabama, which is still considered one of the most racist states in the U.S.”
This incident, of course, is reminiscent of events earlier this year in Virginia that ended up putting all three of the state’s top three leaders under scrutiny.
It began with the discovery of the yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam from his final year at the Eastern Virginia Medical School from 1984 which includes, along with pictures of Northam and others, a picture that depicts one person in blackface and another person wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. In his initial response to the news, Governor Northam apologized for the photograph and appeared to admit that he was one of the two people depicted in that photograph, although he did not say which one. This led a plethora of statewide and national Democrats to call for his resignation, something which at least initially seemed as though it would happen. Within twenty-four hours after the release of the report, though, Northam held a press conference in which he denied being either of the people in the photo although he did admit to having once darkened his skin in connection with a Michael Jackson impersonation he performed in San Antonio later in 1984. This flip-flop and the general weirdness of that Saturday press conference did not satisfy critics and led more of the Commonwealth’s top Democrats to call on him to step aside, a move that he has so far not taken.
Within a week after that revelation, Virginia politics was thrown into further chaos thanks to, among other things, charges of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam were he to resign and the admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he too had donned blackface when he was 19 as part of an impersonation of 80s rapper Kurtis Blow. Later in the week, the dumpster fire in Richmond took on a bipartisan tone when Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment admitted that he had been the editor of the yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute when several photographs of students in blackface were published in 1968, just months before the institution admitted its first African-American student. Despite all of this and the immediate calls for Northam to resign, all three of the state’s top leadership remains in power and the incident does not seem to be having an impact on Democratic chances in the upcoming midterm elections.
Around the same time as the Virginia revelations, it was revealed that several members of the Florida legislature were involved in similar incidents. Additionally, both the Republican and Democratic nominees for Governor of Mississippi were forced to address the same issue when it was revealed that members of their respective fraternities had donned blackface during their time at college, although they apparently did not personally do so.
It should be noted that all of these incidents occurred many years ago. In Northam’s case, the yearbook and the incident in Texas took place in the mid-1980s. The same appears to be true about the incidents in Florida and Mississippi. In Ivey’s case, the incident took place some fifty years ago when Ivy, now in her mid-70s, was in college at Auburn University. While that isn’t an excuse, and even as far back as Ivy’s incident the fact that donning blackface was inappropriate at best and racist at worst was something that should have been apparent even to college students. At the same time, though, the passage of time does seem like its something that ought to be taken into account in deciding how to respond to these matters. 4
When the Northam story first broke, the immediate and near-universal reaction was to demand his resignation. While it initially seemed as if the Governor was prepared to do just that, he decided to hold on instead and has lasted for six months now. Polling in the aftermath of the scandal and up until recently has consistently shown that Virginians, including a majority of African-Americans, do not believe he should resign and that they are not inclined to hold the incident against Democratic candidates in the upcoming mid-term elections that will decide who controls the state legislature through at least 2021. Given this, it’s unlikely that Northam or any of the other politicians are going anywhere, and the same is likely true of Governor Ivey. For better or worse, this appears to be behavior that the public is willing to forgive.