In the run up to President Obama’s May 19 commencement address at Morehouse College, the college president is struggling to quell a growing controversy over what role a critic of the president will play at the college's graduation ceremonies.
Morehouse College President John S. Wilson, who headed the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges before assuming the presidency in January, changed the baccalaureate address format after the invited speaker, Bright Hope Baptist Church senior pastor Kevin Johnson, published an opinion piece questioning the lack of diversity in Obama’s second-term Cabinet. Wilson asked Johnson to speak as part of a three-person panel instead of by himself "to reflect a broader and more inclusive range of viewpoints."
In his first interview with a journalist on the subject, Wilson said Thursday he was engaged in negotiations with Johnson but "commencement weekend is for the graduates, their families and the visit by the president of the United States. Everything revolves around that precious principle."
"We're not entirely happy that the baccalaureate program is not resolved," Wilson said. "This is a delicate situation. But you can be confident we will resolve the situation, because we are Morehouse men."
Johnson, who is African American, published a piece in the April 14 edition of the Philadelphia Tribune titled “A President for Everyone, Except Black People.” The piece suggested President Clinton — and to a lesser extent, President George W. Bush — had done more to help African Americans than Obama.
“When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding,” Johnson wrote. “Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.”
Obama has come under criticism from several groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus, for not doing enough to assemble a diverse Cabinet in his second term.
Two of the Cabinet’s four African Americans and both of its Hispanic members have left or have announced that they are leaving. Only one of the two Asian Americans who served during the first Obama term remains.
On Monday, the president nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is African American, as transportation secretary, and he has nominated Thomas E. Perez, a first-generation Dominican-American and assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, to serve as labor secretary. Neither have been confirmed yet.
After Johnson’s op-ed ran Wilson subsequently asked the pastor — who was scheduled to speak on May 18, one day before the president — to share the stage with two other speakers during the baccalaureate ceremonies.
In an April 17 letter, Johnson questioned Wilson's decision.
"Dr. Wilson, it is incredibly disheartening, in my view, that Morehouse College appears to be deviating from its 146-year-old proud tradition of promoting well articulated, analytical, and thoughtful leaders who have changed the world for the better and who have a heart for those that do not have the means or the tools to speak for themselves," Johnson wrote.
Wilson's critics posted a video on YouTube accusing him of trying to silence any criticism of Obama, saying the president was “marginalizing Johnson by inviting two additional speakers to share the baccalaureate stage.”
“Is this the leadership we want for dear old Morehouse?” the narrator asked.
Wilson published a letter on the school’s Web site Monday, urging members of the college community to “focus our attention on important matters to the exclusion of distractions,” such as any flap concerning Johnson’s.
He added that he “opted for a more creative, multi-speaker approach that is used by many leading institutions.”
“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,” he added.
Johnson, who spoke with Wilson about the matter Wednesday, said Thursday that he was not involved in the video mocking the Morehouse president.
"That video had nothing to do with me," he said.
In his interview, Wilson noted that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 100th anniversary of the college being named Morehouse, and the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a Morehouse graduate — delivering his "I Have a Dream Speech" on the National Mall.
"What a treasure it is for the more than 500 African American men to be with the most powerful African American man in the free world as their commencement speaker," he said. "This is a magical moment, a magical time for us. We are honored to have the president of the United States as our commencement speaker."