A prominent, historically black men’s college in Atlanta is struggling to quell a controversy over what role a critic of President Obama will play in this month’s graduation ceremonies, where Obama is scheduled to offer the commencement address.
Morehouse College President John S. Wilson, who headed the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities before assuming his academic job 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.
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 essay suggested that Bill Clinton — and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush — had done more to help African Americans as president than Obama.
“When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding,” wrote Johnson, whose church is in Philadelphia. “Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.”
In an interview Thursday, Wilson said 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.”
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 black, 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 has been confirmed yet by the Senate.
Johnson was initially scheduled to speak solo at Morehouse one day before Obama’s May 19 address. After Johnson’s op-ed ran, Wilson asked the pastor to speak instead as part of a three-person panel during baccalaureate ceremonies.
Johnson wrote Wilson a letter on April 17 questioning that 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.”
Wilson’s critics also posted a video on YouTube accusing him of trying to silence any criticism of Obama. Johnson said he played no part in making the video.
The dispute highlights an unusual aspect of Obama’s presidency: He enjoys overwhelming support from African Americans as a whole, but continues to be a target of criticism from some members of the African American intelligentsia for not being liberal enough.
Cornel West, a religion professor at Princeton University, has criticized him several times. West told the liberal blog Truthdig in 2011 that “my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” and described the president “Rockefeller Republican in blackface” in a 2012 interview with Democracy Now.
By contrast, 93 percent of African Americans approved of Obama’s job performance in Washington Post-ABC News polls in March and April, with 68 percent approving strongly. Exit polls in November showed that more than nine in 10 black voters cast ballots for him.
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,” including any flap concerning Johnson’s.
“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.
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