An invitation to the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, to be the baccalaureate speaker May 18 at his alma mater, Morehouse College, has been rescinded.
Johnson was informed of the decision by Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. in an April 15 phone call from Atlanta.
According to a press release from Citizens for Change — a group of prominent Morehouse graduates — Wilson’s decision was based on concerns Johnson expressed in an op-ed article that appeared in The Tribune on April 14. In the commentary, Johnson voiced displeasure about President Barack Obama’s lack of Black appointees in his cabinet.
The release said Wilson felt the article was “untimely” given that Obama is scheduled to be the 2013 commencement speaker on May 19.
On April 15 and April 16, which the release added coincided with the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Wilson contacted Johnson and encouraged him to resign as the speaker. Johnson rebuffed Wilson’s suggestion.
Wilson, according to the release, then approached Johnson with a compromise. He proposed that Johnson agree to being one of three speakers for the event. Johnson refused, citing that it was a departure from the college’s tradition of having one baccalaureate speaker, and all initial representations made to him.
Reached Saturday via e-mail, Johnson said, “What has made Morehouse such a premier institution is its commitment to critical thinking, free thought, and free speech. Morehouse teaches her students not to accept the status quo, but to ask the critical ‘why’ and then do something about it, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond, and others did, to uplift African-American people.
“This is a defining moment for Morehouse,” he added. “The Morehouse brand is that she has a 146-year history of producing men who are progressive leaders, critical thinkers, committed to changing the world. I am deeply rooted in this tradition and will continue to devote my life to Morehouse and her ideals.”
On April 17, Johnson sent Wilson a letter insisting the college president honor his original invitation. Wilson then replaced Johnson with three new baccalaureate speakers — the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and a graduating senior.
According to the release, the college posted Warnock and Moss’ names as speakers on its website on April 23 but removed them on April 25 after Warnock and Moss withdrew their names.
However on its website Saturday, the school listed Warnock, Moss and the Rev. Reginald Wayne Sharpe Jr., a member of the class of 2013, as speakers.
Johnson said he is prepared to speak at the event.
“If my beloved alma mater honors its initial commitment to the 2013 Baccalaureate speaker, I will attend and deliver the message God has already given me: ‘Morehouse Men Are Called to be Eagles,’” he said via e-mail.
In the release, Johnson said, “I have always been and continue to be a supporter of President Obama. The issue is not about the article in question, but about Morehouse’s longstanding history and pedagogy of free thought and free speech. Without free thought and free speech, Morehouse would not have produced our most admired alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Several noted Morehouse College almuni are members of Citizens for Change.
“Kevin is not just a Morehouse man,” said the Rev. Calvin Butts, senior pastor of The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, president of SUNY Old Westbury, and a member of the group. In the release Butts said, “he is a stellar example of the college’s rich tradition of producing outstanding leaders in this century who are well-educated, forward-thinking, community-conscious, and global citizens.”
The alumni group wants Wilson to reaffirm and honor his invitation to Johnson.
“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 the Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco in the release. “In 1947, Dr. King warned that, ‘If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ‘brethren!’ Be careful, teachers!’ We are potentially witnessing the realization of King’s greatest fears.”
Wilson was unavailable for comment.