by Larry Miller and Ayana Jones
Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune
PHILADELPHIA (NNPA) – What started out as a respectful article critical of the lack of qualified African-American appointees in President Barack Obama’s cabinet and a perceived lack of policies specifically designed to help America’s poor is turning out to be a war of words between the pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church and the president of Morehouse College.
Maybe it was all just a misunderstanding, or an incorrect interpretation about what was or wasn’t said – but Bright Hope Baptist Church’s pastor, Kevin R. Johnson, in a letter dated April 17, 2013, lashed out at John S. Wilson, president of Morehouse College, about his disappointment that he was being indirectly asked to remove himself as the 2013 Baccalaureate speaker because of an op-ed piece that was highly critical of the policies and cabinet appointments of President Barack Obama.
The president will be speaking during Morehouse’s upcoming 129th commencement ceremonies on May 19, 2013. Johnson was also scheduled to speak during the baccalaureate service that will be held on May 18. Later he learned that instead of being the sole speaker, he was to be one of three speakers, a decision that he alleges was made because of the critical tone of his op-ed piece.
Johnson said he was concerned about Morehouse College’s long-standing tradition of educating and training forward thinking young African-American men. Some of Black America’s most influential men graduated from the historically Black college: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., actor Samuel L. Jackson, film director Spike Lee, politicians Maynard Jackson and Chuck Burris; and scholar and author Lerone Bennett Jr., just to name a few.
In his letter to Wilson, Johnson wrote that he believed he was being “disinvited” to be the 2013 baccalaureate speaker because of the article. Johnson also wrote that he was “surprised and disappointed” by a phone call from Wilson expressing his “personal displeasure” with the op-ed piece. Repeated phone calls by Philadelphia Tribunereporters to reach Wilson for comment were unsuccessful.
“I have not heard from the college or Dr. Wilson,” Johnson said in a brief telephone interview. “The initial offer was for me to be the Baccalaureate speaker, it was not for me to be one of three. I am a man of principle, and so whatever a person’s word is, I stick with that — and that’s what I agreed to. I love my school and am deeply rooted in the prophetic social teaching of Morehouse — that’s why I went to Morehouse. Because of Dr. King, Howard Thurman and so many other illustrious men and because I wanted to be one of those Morehouse men. I will fight to keep Morehouse true to what she’s always been for these 146 years.”
In the letter, Johnson said that when President Wilson called on April 15 he indirectly suggested that he should withdraw from being the baccalaureate speaker. He said that because of a well-thought, crafted and soundly documented article, he became disturbed about the college.
“I am disturbed not because you called, but I am disturbed because of the reason for your calling. Your call was not to congratulate me for upholding the Morehouse tradition of critical thinking, analysis, and writing, but rather to scorn me for the use of it,” Johnson wrote.
The Op-Ed piece was originally published in the April 14 Sunday edition of thePhiladelphia Tribune It was titled “A President for Everyone, Except Black People” and in it Pastor Johnson wrote that aside from Attorney General Eric Holder – the first African American to hold that critical post – there is a lack of diversity within the president’s cabinet. Johnson quoted Rep. Marcia Fudge, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (D-Ohio), who also mentioned this to Obama in a letter sent to his desk.
“When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding,” Johnson wrote. “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: 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. In sum, when one compares the first African-American president to his recent predecessors, the number of African-Americans in senior cabinet positions is very disappointing: Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.”
Johnson said in his letter that the irony was the timing of the discussion, and in the letter lashed out at Wilson and called his leadership of the college into question.
“Not the timing of the article but rather the timing of the discussion,” Johnson wrote. “To be quite honest with you, this is not about an article I have written or even the president of the United States being this year’s commencement speaker. Rather this is about the type of institution Morehouse College will be during your presidency and beyond.”
On April 21, Johnson spoke about the situation to the congregation of Bright Hope.
Michael Williams, a member of the church, expressed his views on the matter in a letter to the editor.
“Today at my church Bright Hope, Pastor Kevin Johnson shared with us that Morehouse may be trying to rescind their invitation to him to be this year’s baccalaureate speaker.
I don’t understand. I’m shocked. I can’t believe they would do this given that my pastor is a proud Morehouse man, talks about his alma mater all the time, and tells students from our church to attend. He has a doctorate degree from Columbia University, but knows to relate to everyone, including me. He speaks out on issues in Philly and the nation just like Dr. King would do if he were alive. I could go on and on about my pastor. I look up to him and want my son to be a Morehouse man just like my pastor,” Williams wrote.
“One more thing. Morehouse’s new president Dr. Wilson was just at our church in June 2012. I remembered his sermon on education Sunday. He did a good job. He told us to think. I was so uplifted by his message that I am now trying to get back in community college so I can get my AA and soon my BA. Because he made me think about going back to school I purchased his sermon and often listen to it to inspire me. I just don’t understand how a minister can treat another minister like that. Also I don’t understand how he can preach a sermon like that at our church and then try to deny my pastor the same opportunity just because he wrote an article about the president in last Sunday’s Philadelphia Tribune. Morehouse and Dr. Wilson should be ashamed of themselves.”