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Why an HBCU leader, President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79, felt compelled to speak out on race and policing – The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz

Last week, when police officers shot and killed two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a national debate about race and policing intensified. Then, when a black gunman killed five police officers at a Dallas protest, that debate took on an even greater element of tragedy.

Through it all, most college presidents have remained quiet. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., president of Morehouse College, is an exception.

The leader of the historically black men’s college in Atlanta wrote a personal essay in The Huffington Post about an incident, decades ago, in which he and his brother were stopped by police officers while driving from Princeton, N.J., to Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Wilson describes the incident as humiliating. But because his parents had spoken with him about what to do if he was stopped by the police, he writes, he was “fortunate enough to survive.”

In wake of this month’s shootings, Mr. Wilson said he felt an additional responsibility to tell his story.

Mr. Wilson was executive director of the Obama administration’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities before taking the top job at Morehouse, his alma mater. He spoke to The Chronicle on Thursday about his essay and how he thinks higher-ed leaders can contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Why did you write an essay about black men and police relations? What motivated you to speak out?

A. This was my second kind of outreach since all of the trouble started last week. The first thing I did was I wrote a letter to all of the students at Morehouse. And I just said, “I can only imagine that you’re as disturbed by this as I am, and your perspective on how to negotiate your future just became a little more difficult as you think about it based on the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas.”

I ended up thinking that I had to do a little more than just a letter to our students because I opened the article with a personal experience that my brother and I had with the police back in ’84 that was jarring to us. And it could very well have turned out the same way it did for Philando Castile in particular.
We were stopped for no reason that was apparent to us. And because we had gotten that talk by our parents and needed it, we ended up driving away. But it didn’t have to be that way.

That’s why I said, “Let me write a little bit more about this and see if I can add a little more and better perspective for not just our students, but for the wider community.”

Q. As the president of an HBCU, did you feel an added responsibility to speak out?

A. I absolutely feel an added responsibility because the Morehouse brand and the Morehouse tradition have us engaged with the most critical issues in the nation and in the world. And we obviously have a tradition in improving American society.

There’s little question that the nation and the world want to hear from Morehouse. I tend to have my hand on the pulse of what’s happening now.

The other reason why I felt a sense of duty and devotion about this is because, for the first time since I can remember at least, there was an extremely upsetting response. That response in Dallas was strikingly at odds with the nonviolent tradition at Morehouse College. Obviously our most famous graduate was Martin Luther King Jr., who was about peace and justice. And that’s why in my article I quoted Dr. King on that very point.

“Whether or not there are hateful and homicidal policemen in America, we still want our young men to conduct themselves in all situations in a respectful, dignified, and courteous way.” On the other hand, anger about Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights is natural. It’s very logical. Its very appropriate. But as a Morehouse man, it’s what you do with your outrage that counts the most, and we encourage our men to follow the tradition: Register it constructively, and then get back to the business of making yourself a better man and a better force of good.

Q. This fall, will you change the way you talk about activism? Do you expect to see a new wave of activism on campus?

A. There’s always an active engagement of Morehouse students in what’s going on today politically, socially, economically. Activism by Morehouse students is a norm. We are going to engage on this institutionally when they return.

We, I guess for almost 150 years, have done an institutional version of “the talk.” That is to say, we have educated our men about the best ways to productively and safely negotiate this world — not just “the talk” as it relates to the police.

We kind of agree with the Black Lives Matter movement that “the talk” should not be necessary. It should not even be possible that your life should be in danger in an encounter with a policeman in America that is routine, like a traffic stop.

A disproportionate number of African-American men lose their lives in encounters with the police. That is in fact outrageous. What we saw last week were two particularly outrageous examples of that.

But here’s where we go with that outrage at Morehouse. Whether or not there are hateful and homicidal policemen in America, we still want our young men to conduct themselves in all situations in a respectful, dignified, and courteous way.

Q. What else do you hope your students do?

A. What we have to do — and what I think the Black Lives Matter movement and similar movements are about — is work hard to change outcomes.

The protest that has been launched since last week — the peaceful protests, I should say, because Dallas is a disgraceful aberration … On one level I want to suggest that what happened in Dallas is shocking and obviously very rare. What has been happening in this country in encounters between policemen and African-American and other minority males has been shocking for a number of years, and one could reasonably have expected some kind of bizarre retaliatory act far sooner than now.

I was a little nervous after what happened in South Carolina with Clementa Pinckney [a South Carolina state senator and clergyman who was one of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killed at a prayer meeting] because that was particularly jarring. What we saw there was an extraordinary response, where families of the victims within 12 to 24 hours were forgiving the murderer. That’s more akin to what we’ve seen after senseless tragedies that African-Americans have had to endure.

While we can all see the tragedy in what happened in Dallas, that’s an aberration. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Q. But what do you hope students will do about this?

“After the activism, get back in class and engage in the life of the mind and let your life, personally and professionally, speak to these issues.” A. Intelligent, effective Morehouse-style protests. And there are two levels. One is through activism, but the other is: After the activism, get back in class and engage in the life of the mind and let your life, personally and professionally, speak to these issues.

Q. Do you feel that college presidents, faculty, academics need to be more outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement or about the recent violence? You’re one of the first campus leaders to really speak out about this.

A. Those of us who lead colleges and universities have to realize that we are in an ideal position to influence the outlook and decision of tomorrow’s leaders.

Given that, I think more of us should, on campus and off campus, communicate values that will encourage more Americans to pursue a better, loftier vision of America. And in this case an America where this kind of tragedy becomes less and less likely.

I think the conversation in the country about gun control is one where our work on campus can really be critical and informative. President Obama is right. There have been far too many tragedies, and we need some legal and social-policy solutions that will make a difference. Now what are those? I think some of them are obvious, some of them are not so obvious.

There’s a lot of meaningful conversation that I think can and should happen on our campus, on the campuses around the country, about what to do about this problem, and that will surely happen at Morehouse College.

Q. Do you mean from a research standpoint or having students think differently about gun control?

A. You have to be engaged in a set of dialogues about social change in this country and the policy infrastructures required to make a difference in social behavior.

The work of improving this society, and causing America to fulfill its highest ideals — that work continues. We need more and more Americans to be determined to continue that work. And I can assure you that that Morehouse tradition will continue.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at


By President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79

In 1984, my brother and I were fortunate enough to survive an encounter with the police. It occurred near the beginning of a drive from Princeton, New Jersey to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was completing my doctorate at Harvard University. I was joined by my fiancé, who was completing her doctorate at MIT, my brother, who was completing his at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and his wife, who was about to enter medical school.

When two Princeton officers flashed us to a halt, my brother and I knew what to do, based on “the talk” our parents had given us years before. We were taught to comply with all orders issued by the police and respectfully reply to any questions they may ask. By doing so, we were told that the encounter would probably have a safe and desirable outcome.

Accordingly, we slowly got out of the front seats with our empty hands in clear view, we placed them on the hood of the car, and we spread our legs, all as sternly instructed. As we were patted down by one officer, the other kept his hand on his gun.

After I respectfully asked the officer why he stopped us, my brother and I worked hard to remain poised once he answered, “You have out-of-state plates, you don’t look like you live here, and you have a car full of belongings!”

I say we survived the police encounter because “the talk” worked for us. We respectfully did as we were told, we quietly absorbed the undeserved humiliation, and we eventually drove away.

So, the most remarkable thing about the recent fatal police shootings of black men is that Philando Castile, who perished in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, clearly heard and heeded “the talk,” too. Although a full investigation is pending, Mr. Castile seems to have conducted himself with the same cooperation and respect my brother and I had, and that so many young black men have been successfully disciplined to display in such situations. And yet, Mr. Castile was brutally shot and killed anyway.

Why? And how?

My wife and I have a 21-year old son, and I now serve as president of Morehouse College — a campus with more than 2,000 African American men.

What should we teach them now?

Three things come immediately to mind as a message to black and minority boys and men. First, stay disciplined. Our parents and teachers were not wrong when they gave us the talk. Because the talk is fundamentally about how best to negotiate the world, it is essentially consistent with the values we work to instill in all men of Morehouse – namely, we want them to demonstrate acuity, practice integrity, exhibit agency, commit to brotherhood and lead consequential lives. We are called to be our best selves even and especially when others are at their worst. Disciplined poise in the face of danger can still save lives.

Second, stay determined. President Obama correctly referred to this peculiar vulnerability of black and other minority males as “an American issue that we should all care about.” It is. It has no place in the America that most of us envision. Even Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota wondered whether this would have happened if Mr. Castile and his passengers were white, and he concluded, “I don’t think it would have.” Many Americans know that, at least where police shootings are concerned, there has been a race-based double standard. And many Americans have grasped the obscenity that being a black male makes you more likely to be killed in a variety of settings, including: after buying skittles in Orlando; while playing in a public park at the age of 12 in Cleveland; after selling loose cigarettes in New York City, and; in countless similar situations where the imminent danger posed by the victims remains nearly impossible to identify.

It is important to stay determined and avoid being trapped and neutralized by crippling fear, apathy and cynicism. In my judgment, this is the only way we realize an America where equality under the law is the norm for all, and where the content of our character is more readily recognized and weighted than the color of our skin.

At Morehouse College, we celebrated our fourth Rhodes Scholar this past spring. But I worry that some police officers will see his tall, lean, dark body and think of him as a menace, rather than a mensch. I worry that his Rhodes Scholarship will no more work for him, than our prestigious graduate pursuits worked for us on that small, dark road in Princeton back in 1984. Being in mortal danger for no other reason than because we are black men is a disgusting feature of an America that we must remain determined to change.

Finally, stay on the high road. Our national “justice for all” agenda will not be realized by responding to violence with violence. By all means, we must shun all tendencies toward hatred and retribution. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” The random assassination of white police officers in Dallas or anywhere else will only exacerbate our challenges rather than help us to meet them.

I join others in calling for a high-road, national conversation about police/community relations, with a particular focus on the experiences of African American men. Because whether or not a black man walks away from a confrontation with police cannot be determined by chance. In the same vein, law enforcement officers should be able to support and protect peaceful protestors without randomly becoming the victims of a self-appointed assassin.

Unless we teach in a way that remedies both black distrust and blue fear, we have little chance of realizing the America we are otherwise destined to become.

Follow John Silvanus Wilson Jr. on Twitter:



To My Morehouse Sons:

The social climate across America is tragically disturbing. It is not hard for us to imagine that recent events have caused you to personally confront a set of raw emotional questions about where you fit and how you can survive the current state of our nation. As a Man of Morehouse, you have chosen to work hard and excel academically in order to have the life that is promised by America. But the pathway to success probably feels different now compared to last week, given the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas.

With this letter, I encourage you to endure the recent disruption to your standard summer activities, including your internships, family gatherings, travel and renewal.   Keep your heads and your hearts in balance. Look toward the future and strive to be a man of acuity, integrity, agency, brotherhood and consequence. By doing so, you will find your own individual blueprint to change and unite our country. That is why your lives matter.

And, moreover, remember this: black men have managed to survive and remain remarkably productive throughout the slave trade, post-Civil War atrocities, the civil rights movement and so many other challenging periods in the life of this nation – and yet, like the great Morehouse College established 150 years ago, we are still standing as strong men of peace and justice!

My love goes out to each of you. Be mindful, be safe and be constructive. And we will see you next month.

Onward and Upward,

President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79



(Saporta Report) By Guest Columnist JOHN S. WILSON, president of Morehouse College

A March 15, 2016 article in SaportaReport about the Morehouse College National Alumni Association presidential elections contained inaccuracies and misinformation about Morehouse College.

We appreciate SaportaReport for making corrections to that story, and we acknowledge that even the best institutions can be hurt by misinformation and disinformation.

But there remains a need for the metro Atlanta community to know directly from us where this great college really stands.

It is true that when I arrived to serve as president in January 2013, Morehouse had not yet recovered from the nation’s economic downturn. The key measures of institutional health were all trending negatively, from enrollment to endowment to advancement. Yet, we have halted and reversed many of these and other metrics.

Morehouse is getting stronger. That is important, because I often remind our alumni and friends that it is imperative that we maintain a high “signal–to-noise ratio.” That is, the signal of our virtues must remain louder than the noise of our vices.

Visit the SaportaReport for the full article.





From the desk of Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79, President of Morehouse College

September 18, 2015 — I trust that Morehouse students reading this blog post on campus right now are having a markedly better wireless experience than you’ve had in the past. For that, we should thank the Morehouse Technology Group for their hard work.

One of our top priorities has been to enhance the student experience, and specifically to improve the quality of life on campus. We are in the process of doing just that by overhauling the campus’ wireless network.

I know how maddening spotty connectivity can be. It is especially hard when it goes in and out while trying to study, send email, or occasionally collapses completely. For a place like Morehouse, the ability to get online and stay online should never be a consideration because, in today’s world, having a reliable internet connection is like having pen and paper in the 1970s.  We are actively fixing that and students, if not already, will begin to experience a higher level of connectivity.

Through generous combined contributions from an anonymous donor and our Board of Trustees, funds have been used to give Morehouse one of the best wireless networks in the nation.

Clifford Russell, chief information officer at Morehouse and head of the Morehouse Technology Group, is leading the project. Because you, the students, are impacted most, getting you up and running was our top priority. That is why we rolled out the upgrade first in the residence halls. Most of the residence halls, as of last, week, should be upgraded. The exceptions were Mays and the Quad, which require additional equipment. Their upgrade should be completed within the next few weeks.

The upgrade began last summer when a state-of-the-art fiber optics infrastructure was deployed. The work done then took the campus from 500MB capacity to 2GB — using 1GB each from internet service providers (ISPs) AT&T and Comcast. Now, between the two ISPs, our capacity has been doubled to an aggregate bandwidth of 4GB.

You are now using one of the most robust wireless networks on any campus anywhere. Each residence hall has equipment that pushes the limits of what vendors can do at this point, boasting the capacity to handle 8 devices per student. Also, the upgrades to our classroom buildings will include the capacity to handle 3 devices per student.

In keeping with my goal to ensure that Morehouse students remain competitive and connected in this global innovation economy, this upgrade was crucial. You are the best students anywhere and you deserve services that reflect that belief!


From the desk of Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79, President of Morehouse College

September 4, 2015 — We’re mere hours away from the start of the Maroon Tigers’ 2015 season opener, and I could not be more excited. I urge you all to join me Saturday night at 7 p.m. in B.T. Harvey Stadium to support our Tigers as they face Edward Waters.

Our 6-4 record over the 2014 season showed steady progress and we finished second-place in the division. I’m very proud of that.

The talent, again, is there. Led by preseason second-team All-SIAC picks Monqavious Johnson (quarterback), Devon Mann (receiver), Alfred Thomas (offensive lineman) and Temitayo Agoro (punter), we will be even better in 2015.

Our team needs you. It needs all of us to stand with it this season. Our mission to educate tomorrow’s leaders is further fulfilled by having highly competitive athletic programs. So, we can and will do both.

We need you to come along side our football team, and let them know you are, as I am, with them. Get loud! Hype your team up! Help make B.T. Harvey a House of Horrors for opponents. And, if able, make a road game or two, like heading down to Columbus for the 80th annual Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic. Again, we need you.

Thank you for your support of Morehouse athletics in the past, and we look forward to much success throughout the 2015-2016 academic year.