Morehouse president denies disinviting Obama critic from graduation ceremonies

The president of Morehouse College has strongly denied allegations that the controversial change in the school’s graduation ceremonies that culminated in a prominent alumnus no longer participating was an effort to stifle political debate.

Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. wrote in an open letter Tuesday that the Rev. Kevin Johnson, a prominent Philadelphia pastor who was named baccalaureate speaker but allegedly found himself on the outs with top school administrators after criticizing President Barack Obama, was “not disinvited.”

Instead, Wilson said, the original speaker elected not to participate in a modified format that school administrators believed was “more creative.”

“I … 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 …” Wilson wrote. “In this instance, I decided to ask [Johnson] to share the Baccalaureate stage with two other speakers so as to reflect a broader and more inclusive range of viewpoints. To my chagrin, my decision has been wrongly construed by some as an effort to ‘disinvite’ this individual.”

Johnson, who wrote a column in a Philadelphia newspaper earlier this month in which he criticized the president’s majority-white cabinet picks, said Wilson had expressed reservations about his comments and suggested he resign his role in the graduation ceremonies.

When Johson rebuffed administrators, Wilson moved to expand the baccalaureate program from one to three speakers, a break from tradition.

The reverend refused that offer as well, according to East Atlanta Patch, and asked by letter that Morehouse honor its original invitation that he deliver the sole baccalaureate address. Instead, the article said, Johnson soon learned he had been replaced altogether by a trio of new speakers.

But Wilson vigorously denied the implication Tuesday that his decision to alter the format of the baccalaureate service was motivated by Johnson’s criticism of President Obama, who will deliver the school’s commencement speech.

“He was not disinvited, but rather declined to participate in the format,” he said. “Worse yet, this decision has led to allegations of censorship … These allegations are fundamentally deleterious and are undeserved.”

The college’s response came as two dozen prominent alumni publicly urged Wilson to reappoint Johnson as the sole baccalaureate speaker.

- James Richardson