Nearly three dozen black alumni of Liberty University denounced school President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Monday, suggesting he step down after he mocked Virginia’s mask-wearing requirement by invoking the blackface scandal that engulfed the state’s governor last year.
In a letter to Falwell, 35 faith leaders and former student-athletes told Falwell that his past comments “have repeatedly violated and misrepresented” Christian principles. They said they would stop urging students to attend Liberty, would no longer donate to the university, and would urge fellow people of faith to avoid speaking at the school unless Falwell changes his behavior or steps aside.
“You have belittled staff, students and parents, you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence, and disrespected people of other faiths,” they wrote, advising Falwell that “your heart is in politics more than Christian academia or ministry.”
Falwell, a stalwart backer of President Donald Trump, is the son of the late evangelist Jerry Falwell, whose legacy the alumni invoked in imploring the younger Falwell to “stop this infantile behavior.”
In response, Falwell said his comment about the blackface scandal was made in defense of Liberty students, including minorities, who would be affected by tuition assistance cuts proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Falwell said his involvement in politics was the spirit of Jesus Christ, “who was not silent about the establishment political folks of his era.”
“All they need to do is read the Gospels—Jesus got involved in politics,” Falwell said in an interview.
Last week, Northam issued an order that masks be worn inside all retail stores, while using public transportation, or in any other indoor place where people congregate. The next day, Falwell tweeted that he was “adamantly opposed” to the mask mandate “until I decided to design my own.” With it, he posted a picture of a mask bearing a racist photo that appeared on Northam’s medical yearbook page and—when made public last year—sparked a scandal that nearly forced him from office. The photo showed a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume.
Monday’s letter was signed by more than 30 former students at Liberty, one of the nation’s biggest Christian universities, including pastors with churches in Virginia, Tennessee, and Michigan. Among the signatories were Latasha Morrison, who graduated from Liberty in 2013 and is the founder of a racial reconciliation network called Be the Bridge, as well as current pro football player Walt Aikens and former pro football player Eric Green.
“While your tweet may have been in jest about Virginia’s Governor, it made light of our nation’s painful history of slavery and racism,” the alumni wrote to Falwell. They described the tweet as “a microcosm of the past several years of divisive rhetoric” that falls short of their faith’s ideals.
The leading signatories were pastors Chris Williamson, of Strong Tower Bible Church in Tennessee, and Eric Carroll, of the Ascension Church RVA, who graduated from Liberty in the early ‘90s and helped organize the letter. Williamson and his wife—writer Dorena Williamson, who also signed—are the son-in-law and daughter of the vice chairman of Liberty’s board of trustees, Virginia pastor Allen McFarland.
The rebuke came after an online instructor for Liberty, a black pastor who also teaches at Ithaca College, announced his resignation online in response to the tweet. According to a screenshot posted of his resignation email, the instructor wrote, “I cannot remain part of an institution whose senior leader would engage in such actions at any time, but then to have the unmitigated gall to do so at a time when black communities are once again grieving over recent incidents of racial violence.”
The alumni who wrote Monday’s letter also lauded their experience at the university and offered to meet with Falwell to “provide counsel on ways for LU to best move forward” if he stays in office.
They asked him to “withdraw your racist tweet immediately and make a public apology.”
The Virginia General Assembly in March passed a budget for the 2021-2022 biennium that eliminates a tuition assistance grant for online students at private colleges such as Liberty. Existing students are grandfathered in, said Laura Osberger, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
“The governor’s intent was to harm Liberty, and to harm minority students and to harm low income students,” Falwell said, linking the cuts to his tweet by saying that as a result, “people needed to be reminded of (Northam’s) racist past.”
Northam initially said he was in the yearbook photo and then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year. He faced swift, widespread calls to resign, but he resisted, saying he instead wanted to help heal the state’s lingering racial wounds and devote the rest of his term to promoting racial equality.