Morehouse Alums Ask that Graduation Speaker Be Re-Invited

By on May 2, 2013

A group of Morehouse College alumni calling itself "Citizens for Change" has urged the college to revoke its alleged disinvitation to alumnus Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson as baccalaureate speaker. The College retracted the invitation just days after Dr. Johnson shared criticisms of President Obama in a Philadelphia Tribune op-ed. 

The back story is this: John Silvanus Wilson Jr., president of the private, all-male, historically black Atlanta college, reportedly expressed concerns over the op-ed and asked Johnson to step down as speaker. When Johnson declined to do so, Wilson proposed that Johnson be one of three speakers, despite the Morehouse tradition of having just one baccalaureate speaker. Johnson asked that his original invitation be honored, and Wilson finally in essence replaced him with three other speakers, two of whom have now decided not to participate.

Wilson stated that his "decision has been wrongly construed by some as an effort to ‘disinvite’ this individual. He was not disinvited, but rather declined to participate in the format." In light of the timing of his conversations with Johnson and the break from Morehouse tradition, though, alumni have understandably regarded the act as retaliation for Johnson’s political statements. Johnson has expressed his disappointment as well: 

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. 

In its letter, Citizens for Change explained the potential negative consequences of Morehouse’s decision: "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." One of the authors also cited King’s own concern about the impulse to ignore or avoid diverse viewpoints on campus. In a 1947 article for Morehouse’s newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, King put it this way:

To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose… Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. 

[...] 

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!

Read Citizens for Change’s letter in full, and check out the wise words from Dr. King that remain as relevant as ever.