Alabama’s Republican governor apologizes for wearing blackface in college, refuses to resign
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.”
But Maiola told The Post that Ivey wouldn’t resign, saying her “commitment to serve the state is unchanged and unwavering.”
Earlier this year, a photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page resurfaced, beginning a national outcry that shed new light on the racist past of Northam and the scores of other politicians who for years have emerged from similar scandals relatively unscathed.
Northam’s photo featured two men posing, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. The governor initially apologized for the image, but then backtracked and has since insisted that he is not either of the people pictured. However, he did admit to wearing blackface at a different time to impersonate Michael Jackson. Northam survived calls from members of both parties to resign.
Then, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring — like Northam, a Democrat — also admitted to appearing in blackface as a student in the 1980s.
And in Mississippi, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have been questioned about their association with college fraternities where students routinely donned blackface and dressed up as slaves and Confederate soldiers.
The Auburn Plainsman, the school’s student newspaper, reviewed more than two dozen old copies of the Glomerata yearbook in February and found a picture of five women in blackface on Alpha Gamma Delta’s page in 1967, when Ivey was a senior and a member of the sorority.
The photo shows the women wearing black masks and shirts with pantomimed cutouts of black people on the pockets. The caption reads, “Alpha Gam Minstrels welcome rushees aboard their showboat.”
Ivey spokesman Daniel Sparkman told the Plainsman that Ivey “knows nothing about the page in the first place, and she does not appear on that page.”
At the time, Ivey was vice president of the student government and was president of her pledge class in 1964. However, Sparkman said, “after that time, she remained a member, but she took no further roles in the sorority because her focus shifted during her freshman year to SGA activities.”
President Trump is greeted by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) upon his arrival March 8 in Auburn, Ala., en route to Lee County, where tornadoes had killed 23 people. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
In the unearthed radio interview, featured on a show called Auburn University Profiles — which offered “sketches of the personalities, ideas and events that make Auburn University an exciting place” — LaRavia waxed elegiac about a far-off time, when the college students would struggle to recall their glory years.
“Should each of us ever reach a position that we could not remember back to our college days,” he said, “all we’d need to do is come back to the Auburn BSU and look at some of those pictures they took that night and I understand we would be quite humbled at this.”