Tension is mounting at Morehouse College.
As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver a commencement address at Morehouse, a prominent Philadelphia minister who wrote a scathing critique of Obama now says he’s been disinvited to speak at Morehouse one day before Obama is scheduled to speak on May 18.
Rev. Kevin Johnson, senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, is embroiled in a growing controversy following a blistering editorial he wrote in The Philadelphia Tribune entitled: “A President for Everyone. Except Black People.”
“Given the president’s poor record in catapulting an economic and empowerment agenda for the African American community, we must begin asking the questions: Why are we so loyal to a president who is not loyal to us?” Johnson wrote last month.
“To my disappointment, the president has not only failed the Black community, but also has failed to surround himself with qualified African Americans who could develop policies to help the most disenfranchised,” Johnson wrote.
“Indeed,” Johnson added, “if we objectively look at Obama’s presidency, African Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president.”
Johnson had been invited to deliver a baccalaureate address at Morehouse one day before Obama’s address, but after reading Johnson’s editorial, Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. — who previously headed the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities — told Johnson that he had decided to change Johnson’s address into a “multi-speaker” event to include three speakers.
“As president, I believe this is in the best interest of the college,” Wilson wrote on the Morehouse website. “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.”
Some black professionals say Wilson is scolding Johnson for criticizing Obama, because Obama is Wilson’s former boss. But one black minister says Johnson is entitled to free speech and should not be punished for stating his political views.
“In an academic institution. … it’s the wrong message to send graduating seniors who are going out into a diverse world,” the Rev. Delman Coates, a Maryland pastor, told USA Today. “If Martin Luther King Jr. could challenge Lyndon Baines Johnson on the Vietnam War after Johnson won the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, then why should a distinguished alumnus of Morehouse College not raise pointed questions about the Obama administration?”
Johnson’s controversial editorial criticizing Obama comes as some black Washington, D.C. residents have whispered their frustrations about a White House they consider too white. And in some black circles, Johnson’s column has caused some black leaders consternation over the issue of racial diversity in the White House.
“What we’re looking for is a government that, at a minimum, has been better than any other president has ever been on diversity,” s Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told POLITICO. “He’s not there yet, even though he’s African American.”
But Johnson used harsher words to make a similar point.
“For me, the absence of African Americans in a second term is not only disrespectful to the Black community—who voted 96 percent for President Obama in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012, but also underscores a larger problem of economic and job opportunities for the Black community,” Johnson wrote.
Last week, however, Obama nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to become Secretary of Transportation and Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Both men are African American.
And Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior adviser, spoke passionately earlier this year about Obama’s ambitious goal to rehabilitate 20 poor communities across the country where black people have struggled for years.
Speaking to black journalists in February, Jarrett said the plan to renovate some of the nation’s most devastated black neighborhoods is part of a broad strategy to help improve the quality of life for many black Americans and includes Obama focusing on a myriad of challenges facing young black men as he begins his second term in the White House.
When asked about the president’s perceived reluctance to discuss race publicly, Jarrett said the White House plans to do a better job communicating its social and economic policies to the black community.
“We’re not afraid to say this is going to help black people,” Jarrett said during a White House interview.
Obama also traveled to the South Side of Chicago in February where he spoke to 16 black male students at the Hyde Park Academy High School, who are growing up poor, troubled, and some without fathers in their lives.
“This is very personal for him because he didn’t have a father,” Jarrett said of the president. “He was raised by a single mom so he knows the challenges.”
Meanwhile, some Morehouse alumni are calling on Wilson to honor his original terms and allow Rev. Johnson to be the only speaker during the baccalaureate event at the historically black college in Atlanta.
“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,” Amos Brown, a Morehouse graduate and senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Obama’s speech at Morehouse also comes as four Morehouse College athletes were arrested in March and charged in connection with two separate sexual assaults. Three of the students – all black men — were charged in an alleged on-campus incident prior to spring break. The fourth was charged in a different case off campus.
And while Obama is poised to speak at Morehouse in 10 days, many black folks in Atlanta remain focused on Rev. Johnson’s rather blunt criticism of the president.
“When one compares the first African American president to his recent predecessors,” Johnson wrote, “the number of African Americans in senior Cabinet positions is very disappointing.”