During a recent visit with Morehouse graduate Leland Shelton at his home in Baltimore, I noticed a trophy on a bookshelf honoring him as the top political science student in his class. What would he ask President Obama about politics if given the chance?
“I would ask him what he thinks about the future of the war on drugs and the war on poverty,” said Leland, 21. “I’d ask how he deals with having to concede a lot of the legislation he’s pushing; how do you negotiate so you can actually get things passed?”
Obama had singled Leland out for special recognition while giving a “no excuse for failure” commencement address at Morehouse last week. The president noted that he was graduating Phi Beta Kappa and headed for Harvard Law. Moreover, Obama added, the young man had succeeded despite the fact that, at age 4, “social services took him away from his mama” and placed him in foster care.
Leland Shelton became an instant sensation.
Just to give some idea about how much the shout-out resonated, Washington-based writer A’Lelia Bundles posted a story about it that same day on her Facebook page, “Helping Ourselves.”
Most of her postings garner about a thousand views. As of Tuesday, the one about Leland had received nearly 750,000.
Who is this young man?
He’s passionate about politics, that’s for sure. Morehouse, a historically black, all-male college in Atlanta, is noted for producing first-rate political theorists and tacticians — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among them.
Oddly, Obama did not mention politics at all.
“I was taking civics in elementary school, and I remember being very interested in how laws were passed,” Leland said. “What made people want to obey laws? How could laws be used to make communities better?”
Leland has an open, expressive face, a broad smile and eyes that light up when he talks politics. His build is compact, athletic and recently toned by a marathon of bear hugs he’s been giving to well-wishers.
Leland had indeed been placed in foster care, along with two sisters and three brothers. Their parents had become addicted to drugs, so their grandparents became foster parents and took custody of them.
Margaret Jones, the grandmother, had been the first female pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore — “the church I was raised in,” Leland said.
James Jones, the grandfather, worked at an ice cream factory. Every other Friday, he’d bring home cartons of ice cream.
“I thought that was the best job ever,” Leland said.
Leland, the second youngest of the bunch, was the first in the family to go to college. Even though some of his siblings took the family breakup harder than others, as you can imagine, “they are doing pretty well,” Leland said.
The parents eventually got their act together and are living drug-free.
Almost from the day Leland started school, he was enrolled in classes for gifted and talented students. Having witnessed the social and economic chaos caused by illegal drugs, his sharp mind was primed for that civics class.
As his education continued, at Baltimore City College high school and Morehouse, he learned how institutional barriers, often rooted in racism and greed, create their own havoc. Access to capital, housing, health care, quality education and employment could all be unfairly limited or denied.
“The reason for the persistent racial disparities in the country is simple: slavery and Jim Crow,” Leland said.
He wasn’t making excuses, just telling the truth.
How would Obama answer the young scholar’s question about the war on drugs, which is nothing but a racially targeted Jim Crow-style pipeline of profit for privately run prisons?
Failure to address injustice, now there was no excuse for that.
Leland said he appreciated Obama’s emphasis on personal responsibility, and the audience did applaud when the president said: “Nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.”
But Leland did not need to be told that.
“Our grandparents provided us with the moral fiber that kids should have by raising us in the church,” Leland said. “They taught us to have good character, to know right from wrong, be willing to sacrifice for others and work hard.”
A month into his sophomore year, his grandmother died of lung cancer. Leland was so heartbroken that he thought about quitting school. But his grandfather, setting aside his own grief, persuaded him to stay. “He said, ‘Grandma wouldn’t want us to fret and she’d want you to carry on,’ ” Leland recalled.
On Sunday, when Leland walked into Pleasant Hope Baptist, the congregation gave him a standing ovation. Pastor Herber M. Brown III told church members to give themselves a pat on the back, as well.
“Isn’t it good to know that we had a hand in Leland’s success?” Brown said.
“And we all know that Leland is not the only one. Right here in our pews today, we have youngsters who are just as brilliant and beautiful, students with bright futures just like his because they are also receiving our love and support.”
Through schooling (and training as a wrestler at City College), Leland had learned that people can get beat down no matter how hard they try. And, as Brown reminded his congregation, nobody claws their way from foster care to Phi Beta Kappa on his own, not even the remarkable Mr. Shelton.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.