The racial strife roiling the country and its politics has reached an unlikely redoubt of social conservatism, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University.
Blackface and Ku Klux Klan imagery tweeted by Mr. Falwell, who tolerates little dissent at the evangelical university he leads, has spurred staff resignations, demands for his firing by influential alumni, an incipient boycott and a raucous protest in the university’s home of Lynchburg, Va., over the past week.
So heated was the response that on Monday, Mr. Falwell, the university’s president and a vocal ally of President Trump, did something rare for him in the heat of a controversy: He apologized for a May 27 tweet in which he mocked the social-distancing orders of Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. In that tweet was the image of a mask on which was emblazoned the photo from Mr. Northam’s medical school yearbook of a man in black face and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, one of whom might be Mr. Northam.
“After listening to African-American L.U. leaders and alumni over the past week and hearing their concerns, I understand that by tweeting an image to remind all of the governor’s racist past, I actually refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point,” Mr. Falwell said in a statement and on Twitter. “Based on our long relationships, they uniformly understood this was not my intent, but because it was the result, I have deleted the tweet and apologize for any hurt my effort caused, especially within the African-American community.”
It is not clear whether the overture — as much another jab at Mr. Northam as an olive branch to Mr. Falwell’s critics — will defuse the controversy.
“Your actions have shown you really don’t care about the black community, and that’s sad,” Keyvon Scott, an online admissions counselor who had resigned in protest, said upon learning of Mr. Falwell’s apology. “You can’t say this is a Christian university, but then everything that comes out your mouth is about Trump.”
The tweet in question came after months of criticism over Mr. Falwell’s decision to reopen Liberty University after spring break, despite the coronavirus pandemic, and of his mockery of social distancing orders.
“I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own,” Mr. Falwell wrote above the blackface and Klan image. “If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, but only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!”
At least four black faculty and staff members resigned in protest, including Mr. Scott and Quan McLaurin, who was Liberty’s director of diversity retention. Players on Liberty’s popular football and basketball teams have had fraught meetings with coaches and staff to discuss George Floyd, a black man whose death in police custody has roiled the nation, and the Falwell controversy.
Mr. Scott, who graduated from Liberty, said he now faces financial uncertainty because “people take one look at Liberty University on my résumé, and I always get asked the same question: Why would you go there?”
A regional broadcaster owned by an African-American businessman and Liberty alumnus threatened to no longer run Liberty advertising or content. And the larger Liberty alumni world showed a dissident streak unheard-of in the school’s nearly 50-year history.
“It has become obvious to many that your heart is in politics more than Christian academia or ministry, so we would encourage you to leave the position of school president and pursue politics full time,” said an open letter signed by 36 prominent African-American alumni, including several National Football League players. “Your statements hurt the ability of Liberty alumni to obtain jobs and have a voice in the culture. Having the school’s name on a résumé can be a liability to many of our graduates.”
The letter was turned into a petition on change.org, signed by nearly 37,000 people as of Monday.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Elizabeth Williamson