Controversy Swirls Over Rev. Kevin Johnson’s Canceled Morehouse Speech Over Anti-Obama Column

Morehouse College

Controversy Swirls Over Rev. Kevin Johnson’s Canceled Morehouse Speech Over Anti-Obama Column (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rev. Kevin Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, was disinvited from speaking at Morehouse College because he wrote a column critical of the Obama administration, a group of alumni allege. The college denied the allegations. Rev. Kevin Johnson, a Morehouse alumnus, was chosen as this year’s baccalaureate speaker, to deliver his address a day before President Obama delivers the commencement speech May 19.

The alumni allege Morehouse president John Silvanus Wilson Jr., contacted Rev. Kevin Johnson by telephone to rescind the invitation, saying he was concerned about the recent newspaper column in the Philadelphia Tribune that addressed the scarcity of black appointees in President Obama’s cabinet and the lack of policies to reduce poverty. Johnson reportedly refused to step aside as speaker.

Here’s an excerpt from Rev. Kevin Johnson’s column:

In American presidential history, President William Jefferson Clinton has been, by far, the most transformational leader.

Clinton appointed seven African-American cabinet members, the most of any president in history: Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce; Mike Espy as Secretary of Agriculture; Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy; Alexis Herman as Secretary of Labor; and Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs. President Clinton also appointed Togo West as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Rodney Slater as Secretary of Transportation.

Compared to Obama, President George W. Bush also had more African-Americans in his cabinet, including the first African-American secretary of state and secretary of education, Colin Powell and Rod Paige, respectively. Bush also appointed Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Alphonso Jackson as secretary of housing and urban development.

For Obama, Eric Holder is the first African-American attorney general and the only African-American cabinet member of Obama’s administration.

Citizens for Change sent out a press release slamming Morehouse for canceling Rev. Kevin Johnson’s speech. Here’s an excerpt:

The article entitled, “A President for Everyone, Except Black People,” was published on April 14th and respectfully criticized the lack of African-American appointees in President Barack Obama ‘s cabinet and challenged the lack of policies specifically designed to reduce poverty. On April 15th and April 16th, coincidentally the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter fromBirmingham Jail,” Wilson contacted Johnson and encouraged him to resign as the speaker, a suggestion Johnson refused. Wilson then proposed that Johnson agree to be one of three speakers for the event. Johnson refused this offer as well on the grounds that it was a departure from the college’s tradition of having one baccalaureate speaker, and all initial representations made to him.  Accentuating the principle of free speech, Johnson said, “I have always been and continue to be a supporter of President Obama. The issue is not about the article in question, but about Morehouse’s longstanding history and pedagogy of free thought and free speech.  Without free thought and free speech, Morehouse would not have produced our most admired alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Johnson submitted a letter to Wilson on April 17th insisting that Wilson honor his original invitation. Instead, President Wilson proceeded to replace Johnson with three new baccalaureate speakers—Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock , Senior Pastor of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III , Senior Pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ inChicago, and a graduating senior. The college posted Warnock and Moss’ names on its website on April 23rd as the speakers, but quickly removed their names from the site on April 25th after Warnock and Moss withdrew their names.

Growing concern is mounting among Morehouse College alumni regarding President Wilson’s handling of this situation.  Many regard the college’s change of course as an affront to the liberal arts tradition of intellectual freedom and critical thought, and out of step with the institution’s academic tradition.  Rev. Delman Coates , Ph.D., Senior Pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Churchin Clinton, MD said, “Morehouse College is founded upon the ideals of spirituality, scholarship, and leadership.  The public ministry of Dr. Kevin Johnson is fully compatible with the College’s brand and tradition of intellectual inquiry and prophetic moral critique.  The idea that Dr. Johnson’s views disqualify him as a candidate to deliver the Morehouse baccalaureate address is quite disturbing.  The views expressed in the article in question are consistent with views he has expressed in his monthly columns and national media appearances.  If the goal here is to subject potential speakers to an ideological litmus test as a precondition for speaking during this historic weekend at Morehouse, the college administration should have done its due diligence in thoroughly vetting the potential speaker in advance of extending the invitation.  Dr. Johnson represents the best of the Morehouse tradition and the best of engaged political support of President Obama, even if at times critical of the President.  Whether one agrees with Johnson or not, the coalition of Obama supporters consists of people with varying viewpoints, and of varying points of agreement and disagreement with the Obama Administration.  Punishing the expression of political dissent is the wrong message to send young African-American men charged with being global citizens in a diverse world.”

Rev. Kevin Johnson is saying out loud what many in the black community don’t want to admit to. The Congressional Black Caucus has called out President Obama for the lack of diversity in his Cabinet, so this is nothing new. The reality is that Morehouse College shouldn’t stifle free speech. That’s not its role. I concur with alumni for urging John Silvanus Wilson Jr. to reconsider his disinvite.

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