Virginia is in turmoil today in the wake of a blackface controversy engulfing its governor, Ralph Northam, and now state Attorney General Mark Herring.
Both will probably resign. They should, of course. All of which makes you wonder: How did Mel Carnahan survive it?
In 1999, the Missouri governor was embroiled in a historic and caustic U.S. Senate race against John Ashcroft. It was a battle of political titans, and it was something more — a battle for Missouri’s political soul. The two were polar political opposites having navigated exemplary public careers.
That fall, the Democrats hammered Ashcroft for his leadership role in blocking the confirmation of a black judge, Ronnie White, for the federal bench. In naming White to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1995, Carnahan had picked the first African American to serve on that court.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The fallout was brutal, with two members of Congress, including Missouri Rep. William Clay, branding Ashcroft as racist.
Republicans countered by releasing a 40-year-old newspaper photo of Carnahan in blackface. He was 26 at the time and performing in a Rolla minstrel show. Carnahan, a Democrat with a reputation as a straight arrow, suddenly was on his heels.
“I sincerely and readily apologize for my insensitivity of 39 years ago,” Carnahan said.
In hindsight, what’s amazing is how quickly the controversy faded. Later that month, with the race having gone nuclear a year before the 2000 election, Ashcroft and Carnahan talked on the phone in search of civility they never found.
The race remained intensely competitive until Oct. 16, 2000, when Carnahan died in a plane crash. He went on to win the election posthumously.
I covered that campaign every day for two years, and I didn’t recall the Carnahan blackface episode even following the Northam disclosure. It took a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story to bring it all back. There’s a lot to unpack.
For starters, the Northam case highlights just how much racial sensitivities have changed in 20 years. Put Carnahan in Northam’s shoes, and he wouldn’t survive the ordeal, either. Not in a social media world where information is shared at lightning speed, and impressions form almost as fast.
Carnahan appeared in blackface in the early 1960s. He was 26, old enough to know better. But times were different. The country wasn’t far removed from an era when blackface and minstrel shows were common. Rolla, Carnahan said, “was not very far advanced” in the realm of race relations in 1960. Even civil rights advocates of the time failed to speak out about the shows.
Soon, Carnahan helped change the annual production to a variety show. A few years later, as a state lawmaker, he helped pass a bill to ban discrimination in public facilities.
Carnahan aide Roy Temple this week recalled the governor spending an entire day calling black leaders to apologize. Carnahan had had a long career in politics at that point, not to mention nearly two terms as governor. The apologies were mostly accepted because those leaders knew him.
Northam’s photo appeared in his yearbook in 1984, and he, too, was in his mid-20s. By then, though, minstrel shows had become part of our distant past.
Mel Carnahan could stand and fight another day. But today, Northam must go. The world has evolved in 20 years, which is a very good thing.