By Roland S. Martin
When President Barack Obama speaks Sunday at the 129th commencement of Morehouse College, the president of the school, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., will be beaming with pride as the nation’s first Black president addresses the nation’s only college dedicated to educating primarily Black men.
But when the speech is done and the photos are taken, President Obama will jump on Air Force One to head back to Washington, D.C. to battle his Republican critics.
As for Wilson, the man who served under Obama as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities before being named the 11thpresident of Morehouse, is going to have to spend a lot of time repairing the rupture with his alumni that is of his own making.
It all began earlier this year when Wilson, a 1979 Morehouse graduate, invited Philadelphia pastor Kevin Johnson who is also an alumnus of the school, to be the baccalaureate speaker this weekend. All was well until Wilson got wind of an opinion piece Johnson wrote in a Black newspaper in Philadelphia that criticized President Obama’s lack of Blacks in his cabinet, as well as policies that would directly benefit African Americans.
Wilson contacted Johnson about the piece, and instead of the university president accepting it as simply one man’s opinion, he altered his previous decision. Johnson claims he was disinvited, but Wilson denies that, writing in a column posted on the university’s website: “I subsequently made a decision to adjust the format of the Baccalaureate program and opted for a more creative, multi-speaker approach that is used by many leading institutions. This sharing of the stage comports with the spirit of upholding democratic ideals, including freedom of speech and expression, and is entirely consistent with the spirit of camaraderie that Morehouse holds dear.
“As president, I believe this is in the best interest of the college. In this instance, I decided to ask this invited speaker to share the Baccalaureate stage with two other speakers so as to reflect a broader and more inclusive range of viewpoints.”
Let me break down Wilson’s 451-word column he titled “Keeping Our Focus,” down to two words: Absolute nonsense.
It is clear that Wilson was perfectly fine with all of the other things Johnson has said or written since he invited him to be the baccalaureate speaker. But lo and behold, when the pastor chose to criticize Wilson’s former boss, President Obama, all of a sudden there was a need on the Morehouse campus for broader viewpoints.
The move by Wilson has angered a number of Morehouse graduates, a number of whom I’ve personally talked to and corresponded with over the last few weeks.
A group of prominent Morehouse graduates, calling themselves Citizens for Change, released a statement condemning Wilson’s decision.
“If President Wilson turns his back on one of our most distinguished alums because of an exercise of free speech and political commentary, he will have set Morehouse on a dangerous course and departed from the great tradition bequeathed to us,” said the Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco in the release. “In 1947, Dr. King warned that, ‘If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ‘brethren!’ Be careful, teachers!’ We are potentially witnessing the realization of King’s greatest fears.”
The invoking of King, a distinguished graduate of Morehouse, clearly rankled Wilson, who wrote in his column to the university, “In brief, this matter is not and has never been about censorship. Nor has it anything to do with stifling or limiting ‘prophetic voices,’ disturbing the ‘King legacy,’ or deviating from any of the proud traditions of the College.”
Actually Dr. Wilson, what it speaks to is a weakness of leadership. Your leadership. Instead of calling Johnson’s column “untimely,” Wilson should have simply ignored it. So one of your speakers criticized President Obama. Is the new litmus test at Morehouse that no one can utter anything critical of Obama?
As president, he could have easily asked Johnson not to speak on anything political and give a baccalaureate speech that focused on other topics. I’ve given a number of commencement and baccalaureate speeches and that has happened a lot.
Instead, Wilson’s petty change of plans and disingenuous explanation has taken an issue that would have been non-existent and elevated it to another level. Now he has prominent graduates who are major donors, angry and willing to hold back donations.
I’ve seen the emails. These individuals are real and Morehouse will regret not getting their generous checks.
If Wilson wanted to show genuine leadership, he would apologize to Johnson for his hasty decision, and quickly work to make amends with his university donors.
In a bid to protect his old boss, Wilson has ticked off his new boss: the university alumni. That is never something a college president wants to do, especially one who just arrived on campus as president five months ago.
Maybe Wilson can call President Obama and ask him how his fence-mending golf outings, dinners and drinks with the Republicans are going. He might be doing a lot of that soon in Atlanta and around the country to sooth the bitter feelings of Morehouse graduates.