Controversy surrounds Morehouse baccalaureate ceremony

As Morehouse College prepares for President Obama to speak at commencement, controversy has engulfed the ceremony that will take place the day before.

A prominent Philadelphia pastor who criticized Obama in an editorial last month says he was disinvited to speak at the college’s baccalaureate ceremony, taking place May 18. Alumni sent letters and posted on social media to protest how Bright Hope Baptist Church senior pastor Kevin Johnson was treated, saying it goes against the Morehouse tradition of open dialogue and intellectual freedom.

President John S. Wilson Jr. changed the ceremony’s format after Johnson wrote a scathing piece titled: “A President for Everyone, Except Black People.” In it Johnson wrote “Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.”

Instead of Johnson being the sole speaker, Wilson decided to make him one of three. In a letter to the Morehouse community, Wilson wrote other colleges use multiple speakers and said this set-up will “reflect a broader and more inclusive range of viewpoints.”

Wilson said Johnson was not disinvited. Instead he declined to participate in the new format.

Wilson became president in January. Before that he worked for Obama as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The debacle over baccalaureate is the second controversy that threatens to overshadow the prestige of the nation’s first black president delivering the commencement address at the nation’s only all-male historically black college. Earlier this week it was revealed that four Morehouse students have been accused in two separate incidents of rape.

Questions over the baccalaureate ceremony have swirled for weeks.

An Obama administration official said the White House does not coordinate with colleges about who they choose to speak at events with the president and referred questions to Morehouse.

Morehouse officials didn’t return phone calls or emails Friday seeking comment. Johnson also didn’t return a message left at his church.

Both are Morehouse graduates.

Some alumni demanded that Wilson honor his original invitation for Johnson to be the sole speaker. Some complaints came from Citizens for Change, a group of prominent Morehouse alumni.

“If President Wilson turns his back on one of our most distinguished alums because of an exercise of free speech and political commentary, he will have set Morehouse on a dangerous course and departed from the great tradition bequeathed to us,” said Amos Brown, a Morehouse graduate and senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Wilson wrote that the three-speaker baccalaureate event is “in the best interest of the college.”

“This matter is not and has never been about censorship,” he said. “Nor has it anything to do with stifling or limiting ‘prophetic voices’ … or deviating from any of the proud traditions of the college.”