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A Message From Morehouse

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, May 2, 2009

Eliminate young African American men, and what would police, jailers, social workers, and sports and entertainment moguls do for a living?

After all, young black men live to get in trouble, make babies, act out on stage, slam-dunk and dance in the end zone. That, at least, is the mass-media-influenced image that is accepted as "authentic" by people who should know better.

Someone who does know better is Robert M. Franklin, the president of Morehouse College, the venerable, all-male, historically black Atlanta college noted for building up and turning out generations of outstanding leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., the theologian and writer Howard W. Thurman, and prominent D.C. lawyer James L. Hudson.

Franklin's remarks to students at an April 21 town hall meeting on the campus didn't make headlines. But excerpts from "The Soul of Morehouse and the Future of the Mystique" are making the rounds in African American homes and in social settings, thanks to the Internet and a communications phenomenon called the "black express," which preceded and outlives the Pony Express.

Franklin's speech focused on Morehouse students. But his message has caught on because it speaks to a larger community of up-and-coming young black men who are studiously ignored by arbiters of popular culture.

He translated the mystique into eight simple words: "Renaissance men with social conscience and global perspective."

Franklin said that after two years at the college, he had recognized a critical ingredient that bonds Morehouse men: a fundamental sense of discontent with mediocrity and nonsense. He encouraged the continued development of young black men "so sensitive to the presence of disorder, mediocrity and injustice that they cannot sleep well at night." And he used the moment to take on what he views as the corruption that threatens the soul of young men and women "inside and outside the Morehouse village": the young black male antics so celebrated by popular culture. That conduct, he suggested, represents the behavior of "the spiritually ill and disoriented."

He demanded, that students instead embrace his "Five Wells": well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced. And he highlighted three: reading, speech, and dress.

"I have seen too many students standing in lines wasting time. You should carry something to read and make good use of your down time. Read books, not just summaries of books. Choose an accomplished and prolific writer as a role model," he declared. "But just as important -- if not more -- study grammar and syntax and the art of composition. Learn the power of accurately constructed sentences and well-positioned words."

"It matters," he said, "how well you write."

He spoke of choosing words carefully.

"This reduces the necessity of relying on profanity or empty verbal placeholders like, 'um, um, ahh . . . ' or nonsense like 'you know what I'm saying?'

"Profanity does not reflect your verbal grace and style," he said. "It suggests a lazy mind."

Franklin's thoughts on diversity and decorum are required reading.

"As an all-male institution with the explicit mission of educating men with disciplined minds," said Franklin, "the great challenge of this moment in history is our diversity of sexual orientation."

"Why don't we," he asked the students, "use this opportunity to model something our community needs?"

"Straight men," Franklin said, "should learn more about the outlooks and contributions of gay men. Read a book by a gay author. Have an intelligent conversation with a gay neighbor." Franklin reminded the Morehouse students: "At a time when it was truly scandalous to have homosexual friends or associates, Dr. King looked to Bayard Rustin, a black gay man, as a trusted adviser. And, Malcolm X regarded James Baldwin, a black gay man, as a brilliant chronicler of the black experience."

"To my straight brothers," he said, "diversity at Morehouse is an opportunity that can enrich your education if you are courageous enough to seize the opportunity. We cannot force you, but we invite you to learn from your environment."

On decorum and dress: "I have not desired to be overly prescriptive about this. You do not have to wear a tie and jacket to class, although no one would object to it. You're a college student. You can enjoy yourself while wearing comfortable clothing that respects the fact that you are part of a community of educated and ethical men."

But, he demanded, "in the presence of adult learners, do not sag your pants, do not show your undergarments. Do not wear do-rags, and do not wear baseball caps in class or in the cafeteria."

"Wear what you wish to off campus," he said. "But, while you are here on the ground where [Benjamin] Mays and Martin [Luther King Jr.] and Maynard [Jackson] walked, those items are off limits."

"If you want to be part of something rare and noble, something that the world has not often seen -- a community of educated, ethical, disciplined black men more powerful than a standing army -- then you've come to the right place."

To the knuckleheads and clowns who exploit their color while degrading their legacy, Franklin declared: "If you cannot follow the guidelines of a moral community, then leave."

Let the church say "Amen."

kingc@washpost.com

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