Flanked by black community leaders, one of two University of Oklahoma fraternity members expelled this month for leading a racist chant said Wednesday that he was "sorry, deeply sorry" for his actions.
Levi Pettit, 20, in his first public statement on the chant that drew nationwide outrage, sometimes appeared emotional and tripped over his words during a news conference with one of the state's top African American lawmakers.
"I am so sorry for all the pain that I've caused," he said. "I want you to know that directly from me. Although I don't deserve it, I want to ask for your forgiveness."
Pettit said he understood "completely" why he was expelled and thanked University of Oklahoma President David Boren for accepting his apology. Boren swiftly banned the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity from campus and expelled Pettit and a fellow SAE member after the song surfaced in a video that went viral.
Pettit declined to say where he learned the chant or what he was feeling during a bus ride this month when he and other members gleefully sang the racist lyrics that included the N-word and referenced lynching.
He said he had never thought of himself as a racist and would "stand up against racism" in the future.
"From this point forward, I will be the leader I should have been on the bus," Pettit said at the conclusion of his remarks, drawing a pat on the back from one of the black community leaders to whom he'd apologized in a private meeting before the news conference. "All the apologies in the world won't change what I've done, so I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the person who heals."
The news conference was held at a predominantly black church in Oklahoma City, and was organized by state Sen. Anastasia A. Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat and chairwoman of the Oklahoma Black Caucus.
Pittman called Pettit's apology "a wonderful time for us and our community" and said it showed "how a village can heal a child."
In the days after the video went public, Pettit's parents said in a statement that "he made a horrible mistake and will live with the consequences forever."
Parker Rice, the other SAE member who was expelled, apologized earlier in a written statement.
The university's SAE chapter was also suspended by the fraternity's national leaders, who condemned the chant and have since announced a series of measures to improve diversity in the predominantly white organization.
Some 1st Amendment experts have said that the song may have been constitutionally protected speech, given that the University of Oklahoma is a public university.
Boren justified the expulsions on the grounds that the chant created a hostile learning environment for other students.
Other members of the SAE fraternity hired prominent Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, who previously represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and who questioned the university's decision to dissolve the entire chapter.