LYNCHBURG, Va. (CN) — Weeks after invoking the Virginia governor’s blackface controversy to roast state mask requirements, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has apologized to appease mounting criticism that led some of the school’s black staff members to resign.
The now-deleted tweet appeared on the evangelical preacher’s feed in late May, joking that a mask of his own design made Governor Ralph Northam’s coronavirus-safety mandate more tolerable.
“If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, but only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it,” wrote Falwell, including a mock-advertisement of a face mask emblazoned with the 1984 school yearbook photo that nearly cost Northam his job last year.
The photo shows two people, one of whom is believed to be the future governor, posing in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan hood, respectively.
Under fire from both the right and left — both using the term “Governor Blackface” to ridicule him — Northam’s efforts to distance himself from the image in recent months have included his passage of legislation supporting the black community, including rolling back Jim Crow-era laws that, while unenforceable, remain in the state code.
Falwell, who is a longtime and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, posted his mask tweet on May 27 — two days into what has proved to be enduring protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The black community was quick to lash out.
“A review of your social media and statements during your presidency would lead many to believe that you care much more about politics than Jesus Christ, Evangelism, and the discipleship of students,” a group of black alumni who now serve in leadership roles around the country wrote to Falwell in a June 1 letter. “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.”
The 2-page letter recounts some of the many controversies that Falwell has courted during his leadership of the Christian college based in Lynchburg.
“For several years, you have said and defended inappropriate statements that represent Liberty and our faith very poorly,” Liberty alumni wrote. “You have belittled staff, students and parents and you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence and disrespected people of other faiths.”
Falwell has not resigned but tweeted an apology Monday, saying he has heard the concerns of “African American LU leaders and alumni.”
“I understand that by tweeting an image to remind all of the governor’s racist past,” he wrote, “I actually refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point. Based on our long relationships, they uniformly understood this was not my intent, but because it was the result.”
Whether that apology is enough remains to be seen.
Falwell’s tweet spurred the resignations of at least three of Liberty’s black staffers, including Quan McLaurin. The former director of diversity retention on Monday started a GoFundMe page to collect funds for black students and faculty who might need some financial support to join him in resigning.
“No one at LU understands what it is like to be a Black man working at a conservative evangelical predominantly white institution,” McLaurin wrote in a summary that says some of his colleagues who have resigned are unsure how they will pay the next month’s rent.
“Let’s not even talk about how the reputation of the university has hindered their prospects with future employers,” the post continues.
Hoping to raise $30,000, McLaurin says all funds will go to recipients who “have experienced racial trauma at the hands of the university and resigned from their positions due to it.”
At Liberty’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, a person who answered the phone declined to comment for this article or connect Courthouse News to someone who could.
Back in March, as spreading concern over the coronavirus spurred a raft of stay-at-home orders from state and municipal government, Northam rankled public health officials by welcoming Liberty students back to campus after spring break.