At least three black Liberty University employees have resigned directly as a result of President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s tweet in which he declared he would only wear a COVID-19 mask if it were one depicting the 1984 photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam allegedly wearing blackface.
Falwell, the long-time head of the evangelical Virginia school founded in 1971 by his father, tweeted the infamous photo of a person in Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface on May 27, attempting to mock the Democratic governor’s mask requirement amid the coronavirus pandemic. He apologized on Monday, but questions about his school’s racial issues have arisen as staffers resign or speak out against Falwell.
LeeQuan McLaurin, a former Liberty student who became the school’s director of diversity detention, quit last week, saying he had “no other alternative.”
“I can not just be a window dressing on what is clearly an institution that struggles with a history of racism, prejudice, and discrimination,” McLaurin wrote, according to The Washington Post.
Alleging that Falwell’s tweet was merely the tip of a larger racial problem at the school, McLaurin highlighted in an email obtained by The News & Advance that Liberty’s undergraduate black population dropped six percent to a staggering four percent between 2007 and 2018.
“Some draw a direct line between the start of President Falwell’s divisive, insensitive, and unapologetic approach to politics and that drop,” he wrote, seemingly noting Falwell’s ongoing surrogacy for President Donald Trump as one of his leading evangelical boosters.
McLaurin sentiments echoed nearly three-dozen black alumni who denounced Falwell last week in a letter declaring that his rhetoric has “repeatedly violated and misrepresented” Christian ideals. The letter, which was signed by 35 faith leaders and former Liberty students, also said that if Falwell does not alter his conduct, members would urge prospective students not to attend the school; and fellow members of the religious community to not donate to or speak at future Liberty functions.
“You have belittled staff, students and parents, you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence, and disrespected people of other faiths,” read the letter, further telling Falwell that his “heart is in politics more than Christian academia or ministry.”
Christopher House, an online instructor for Liberty’s school of communications and the arts, also resigned on Monday amid the fallout over Falwell’s conduct.
“What concrete action will we see to help the recruitment and retention and valuing of black faculty members?” said House, who is black, according to The Washington Post. “What development of courses or programs will aid in understanding the construction of race and these hurtful images?”
The Post also noted that another black staffer, Thomas Starchia, resigned in recent days, but that his exit was not explained. Additionally, the paper spoke with a different black Liberty staffer who, speaking anonymously out of fear of losing her job, said that Falwell’s tweet was just “a cherry on top” of the school’s race-related issues. She likened staffers’ fears of losing their jobs and benefits for speaking out against Falwell to slaves fearing getting beaten for disobeying their masters.
Twelve days after his offending tweet, on Monday, Falwell apologized, claiming that after “listening to African American LU leaders and alumni,” he now understands his tweet “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. I have deleted the tweet and apologize for any hurt my effort caused, especially within the African American community,” Falwell added.
But the damage had already long been done. Hours before Falwell’s apology, another black Liberty staffer, Keyvon Scott, also resigned as the school’s online admissions counselor. “I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture,” he wrote. “It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us.”
In a statement, the chairman of Liberty’s board of trustees said some members had met with Falwell and “are satisfied with the President's explanation of his purpose and intentions.”
“We understand these images have been hurtful for a number of our friends to see. We also know him and know him not to be a racist,” Jerry Prevo, Chairman of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, said in the statement. “Nor do we believe that he has been running Liberty University in a way that discriminates against African Americans.”