Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. has responded to the controversy surrounding Rev. Kevin Johnson’s invitation to speak during the college’s baccalaureate service.
The controversy began after Johnson wrote an op-ed article in the April 14 edition of the TribuneTribune that was critical of President Barack Obama’s lack of African American appointees in his cabinet.
Johnson, who is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, had been invited to be the sole baccalaureate speaker May 18 at his alma mater. After Johnson’s article appeared, Wilson contacted Johnson by phone and stated that the article was “untimely” given that Obama is Morehouse’s 2013 commencement speaker. He amended his decision to have Johnson appear as the sole speaker and opted to add two more baccalaureate speakers. Johnson refused the offer on the grounds that it was a departure from the college’s tradition of having one baccalaureate speaker and all initial representations made to him.
Last Friday, Citizens for Change, a group of prominent Morehouse alumni, decried Wilson’s decision to amend his invitation to Johnson. They called for Wilson to honor his original invitation to have Johnson appear as the sole baccalaureate speaker.
“The idea that Dr. Johnson’s views disqualify him as a candidate to deliver the Morehouse baccalaureate address is quite disturbing. The views expressed in the article in question are consistent with views he has expressed in his monthly columns and national media appearances. If the goal here is to subject potential speakers to an ideological litmus test as a precondition for speaking during this historic weekend at Morehouse, the college administration should have done its due diligence in thoroughly vetting the potential speaker in advance of extending the invitation, ” Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md. said in a release.
“Dr. Johnson represents the best of the Morehouse tradition and the best of engaged political support of President Obama, even if at times critical of the president. Whether one agrees with Johnson or not, the coalition of Obama supporters consists of people with varying viewpoints, and of varying points of agreement and disagreement with the Obama Administration. Punishing the expression of political dissent is the wrong message to send young African-American men charged with being global citizens in a diverse world.”
Wilson addressed the issue in an open letter to the Morehouse community.
“In brief, I extended an invitation to a distinguished alumnus to speak at our upcoming baccalaureate service. I subsequently made a decision to adjust the format of the baccalaureate program and opted for a more creative, multi-speaker approach that is used by many leading institutions. This sharing of the stage comports with the spirit of upholding democratic ideals, including freedom of speech and expression, and is entirely consistent with the spirit of camaraderie that Morehouse holds dear,” Wilson wrote.
“As president, I believe this is in the best interest of the college. 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.”
Wilson said his decision was wrongly construed by some as an effort to “disinvite” Johnson.
“He was not disinvited, but rather declined to participate in the format. Worse yet, this decision has led to allegations of censorship, which of course has no place in any viable academic institution. These allegations are fundamentally deleterious and are undeserved,” he wrote.
“In brief, this matter is not and has never been about censorship. Nor has it anything to do with stifling or limiting ‘prophetic voices,’ disturbing the ‘King legacy,’ or deviating from any of the proud traditions of the College.”
When asked to respond to Wilson’s letter, Johnson told the Tribune that he has no response at this time.
Contact staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.