U.S. News

05.18.13

Obama Commencement Address at Morehouse Turns Into Controversy

It was a rough week for the president. IRS. Benghazi. The AP. Even the run-up to his graduation speech at Morehouse College turned into a fight.

“It has been a tough week for President Obama but Atlanta and Morehouse is ready to show our president much love,’’ said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once delivered his Sunday sermons.

On Sunday morning, Rev. Warnock will offer a prayer at the commencement at the all-black Morehouse College (from which he and Dr. King both graduated). Then will come the president, fresh on the heels of one of the worst weeks of his presidency, hounded by controversies about the IRS singling out Tea Partiers, long-standing questions over the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and revelations involving the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records from the Associate Press.

You’d think a sunny Sunday on campus would be just what the president needs. But even here, it seems, a break is hard to come by.

While Sunday will mark the first time an African-American president will deliver the commencement college address to a graduating class of all male African-Americans, one alumni of Morehouse felt compelled to pen an scathing editorial about the president for to those “too’ taken in by the symbolic meaning of it all. Writing in the Philadelphia Tribune earlier in April, Pastor Kevin Johnson from Philadelphia didn’t hold anything back in a piece entitled, “A President for Everyone, Except for Black People.” The op-ed compared the number of African Americans who hold senior positions in Obama’s cabinet with earlier administrations and found the result unacceptable.  Two of the cabinet’s four African Americans and both of its Hispanic members from Obama’s first term have announced they are leaving. Only one of the two Asian Americans who served during the first Obama term remains.

Demographic strategist Donna Brazile said that with his inflammatory comments, Johnson was playing a familiar role for community activists and pastors. She added that White House office numbers don't always tell the entire story.

"This president has done a great deal in choosing and appointing a diverse group in the White House and on the Supreme Court,'' said Brazile. "But civil rights activists and pastors such as Johnson will always want more and that's their role and that's fine. The next president will be expected to do even more than President Obama has. But let's not forget what Attorney General Eric Holder is going through and what a lot of minorities are forced to go through when the are tapped for positions. It can be brutal the scrunity and many turned that opportunity down. So it's not always what it seems.''

Still Johnson's sharp words made much sharper by the fact that the pastor was also scheduled to speak at a Morehouse baccalaureate event just the day before Obama momentous speech for the graduates. Johnson’s tersely written piece quickly threatened to derail the historic weekend for many Morehouse alumni and African-Americans thrilled to welcome the first African American President in a year that commemorates the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Morehouse’s 100th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream’’ speech.

“I didn’t quite understand why he had to write the piece right at this time,’’ said a Morehouse alum.

“I didn’t quite understand why he had to write the piece right at this time,’’ said one Morehouse alumni, who didn’t want to be identified. “It seemed poorly timed no matter how correct or incorrect it was. I’m not saying he didn’t have his points to make. He did and some were valid. I just think the timing didn’t made sense. We all have things we’d love our president to do. But it’s great honor to have the president come to speak to our graduating class and that deserves respect.’’

Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. seemed to agree and quickly attempted to shift focus away from Johnson’s stinging criticism by adding a multi-speaker event for Saturday’s program. The Saturday program is traditional a solo-even, but the college president proposed including Warnock and the Rev. Otis Moss, the pastor of Trinity United Church, Obama’s former Church in Chicago. Johnson declined the offer and suggested to Wilson that he was being uninvited because of his tough opinion toward the President.

Other community leaders quickly became involved, citing freedom-of-speech issues. “Bottom line is that we should be allowed to speak our hearts as well as our minds,’’ said Pastor Calvin Butts of  Abyssinian Baptist Church and a Morehouse graduate as well. “That must be respected and we understand that as a people and a community. We can all agree to disagree about some things and keep moving in a positive direction.” (Johnson has added in various interviews that he continues to support President Obama overall, no doubt attempting to draw a clear distinction between himself and career African-American Obama critics Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West.)

In the end Pastor Johnson will be the solo speaker at Morehouse on Saturday for a weekend that many alumni and Atlanta see as momentous: the leader of the free world now an African American man, speaking in a city with a dark past of segregation and bigotry. Gladys Holmes, whose son James graduates from Morehouse on Sunday, says despite the constant controversy and criticism, she continues to support President Obama and believes the history books will be far kinder to his legacy than the current news cycle.

“I was saddened to think that there would be drama over President Obama speaking at my son’s graduation,’’ said Holmes, 68, of Decatur, Ga. “Dr. King meant so much to me and my family so to have my son graduate from King’s alma mater and have the first African American president give the speech was a win-win for me. So many wonderful things for me in this moment that I know I going to cry the entire day. It’s not going to matter one bit what the orange man [Speaker of the House John Boehner] said last week or who ever else says next week about him. He has already made history and he will be here for our kids to speak. What more can we ask?’’