Controversy surrounds Phila. pastor's canceled speech

Posted: April 28, 2013

The Rev. Kevin Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, was disinvited from speaking at Morehouse College because he wrote a newspaper column critical of President Obama's administration, according to a group of alumni.

The college denied that Friday. Efforts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.

The controversy erupted Friday afternoon when a group called Citizens for Change issued a news release that gave the following account:

Johnson, a Morehouse alumnus, had been chosen as this year's baccalaureate speaker, to address the college community a day before Obama's graduation visit and commencement speech May 19.

On April 15, it said, Morehouse president John Silvanus Wilson Jr. phoned Johnson to rescind the invitation, saying he was concerned about Johnson's recent column in the Philadelphia Tribune that said there was a scarcity of African American appointees in Obama's cabinet and a lack of policies to reduce poverty.

Wilson encouraged Johnson then, and again the next day, to step aside as the speaker, it said. Johnson refused. Wilson then proposed that Johnson agree to be one of three speakers. Johnson again refused, calling it a departure from the tradition of having one baccalaureate speaker.

The release quoted Johnson as saying: "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 long-standing 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."

Johnson submitted a letter to Wilson on April 17 insisting that his original invitation be honored. Instead, he was replaced with three other speakers, the release said.

However, officials at Morehouse, situated in Atlanta and the only all-male historically black college in the nation, offered a different account Friday.

"Rev. Johnson was never disinvited," said Elis Durham, media relations manager, referring further questions to a statement by Wilson.

In it, Wilson said he had long urged Morehouse to "focus our attention on important matters to the exclusion of distractions." Specifically, he said, the community should focus on the graduation celebration of the students and the visit by the president.

Wilson, while not naming Johnson, said he had extended an invitation to a distinguished alumnus to speak at the baccalaureate service, then decided to change the format to a "more creative, multi-speaker approach that is used by many leading institutions."

Three speakers would reflect a broader range of views, Wilson said.

"To my chagrin, my decision has been wrongly construed by some as an effort to 'disinvite' this individual," Wilson said. "He was not disinvited, but rather declined to participate in the format."

Censorship, he added, "has no place in any viable academic institution. These allegations are fundamentally deleterious and are undeserved."

The decision had nothing to do with censorship, the King legacy, or the traditions of the college, he said.

The Citizens for Change news release carried the names of seven Morehouse alumni who said there was "growing concern" over Wilson's handling of the situation and that "many regard the college's change of course as an affront to the liberal arts tradition of intellectual freedom."

It quoted the Rev. Amos Brown, senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, as saying, "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."


Contact Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8205, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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