RICHMOND, Va. – 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 she does not think Gov. Ralph Northam 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 recognized by the General Assembly on the anniversary of their act of civil disobedience on Feb. 22, 1960.
Northam, a Democrat, has faced wide calls to resign over a blackface scandal from his college days. 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 his presence would detract from the solemn occasion.
Instead, Northam invited several members of the group and their families to the Executive Mansion. And while Rice acknowledged that there is a wide variety of opinions about the governor in her circle of black former protesters, she said she left feeling hopeful.
"It was a lovely breakfast, and he was very hospitable," Rice said. When the scandal first broke on Feb. 1, she said she was "incensed. … But after thinking about it and processing it, I found forgiveness."
The breakfast was closed to the press, although two photographers were allowed in at the beginning. One photo showed Northam giving brief welcoming remarks to the group, who were seated around a massive table in the 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, Northam pledged to listen and learn, and said that a lot of work remains 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."
He has defied calls to resign from most of the political establishment of both parties.