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School commencement dispute raises issue over Obama’s diversity record

Alumni at a historically black college where President Obama will deliver the commencement address say the school has disinvited a speaker who criticized the president's record on Cabinet diversity and black unemployment.

Citizens for Change, a group of Morehouse College alumni, said it is "outraged" that college President John Wilson Jr. rescinded the school's offer to the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson to speak at the college's baccalaureate service, which will be held the day before Mr. Obama addresses graduates in Atlanta on May 19.

"Dr. Johnson represents the best of the Morehouse tradition and the best of engaged political support of President Obama, even if at times critical of the president," the group said in a statement. "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."

Mr. Wilson said in a statement that he did not revoke the invitation to Mr. Johnson, but asked him to share the stage with two other baccalaureate speakers, and that Mr. Johnson declined. He said the move had nothing to do with censorship.

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

Mr. Johnson, senior pastor at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said he received a phone call from Mr. Wilson on April 15, the day after he published an op-ed critical of Mr. Obama in the Philadelphia Tribune, which serves the black community. Citizens for Change said Mr. Wilson "encouraged" the minister to step aside as speaker and expressed concern about the column.

In the Tribune article, Mr. Johnson criticized Mr. Obama for failing to appoint more blacks to his second-term Cabinet and for failing to adequately address black unemployment.

"When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding," Mr. Johnson wrote April 14. "For Obama, Eric Holder is the first African-American attorney general and the only African-American cabinet member of Obama's administration. When one compares the first African-American president to his recent predecessors, the number of African-Americans in senior cabinet positions is very disappointing: [Bill] Clinton (7); [George W.] Bush (4); and Obama (1). Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards."

Lisa P. Jackson, who is black, served as Mr. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency administrator, but left her post after the president's first term. Senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett also is black.

The Associated Press reported late Sunday afternoon that President Obama plans to nominate Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is black, as transportation secretary.

Mr. Bush, a Republican, had four blacks in his Cabinet: Secretaries of state Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson and Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus also have criticized Mr. Obama's record on diversity. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, said this month in the group's weekly radio address that Mr. Obama "once again overlooked his most loyal constituency.''

"Many of my colleagues and I are disturbed by the president's lack of attention to diversity in his Cabinet and administration,'' Mr. Thompson said.

White House officials said Mr. Obama is committed to diversity, and that the selection process for his second-term Cabinet is not finished.

"He believes that diversity is valuable because it enhances the decision-making process in the Cabinet, and it's important within his senior staff for the same reason,'' Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said last month.

Mr. Johnson wrote in the Tribune article that Mr. Obama's record was "disrespectful" to the black community that overwhelmingly backed him in 2008 and 2012. Mr. Johnson said he organized Philadelphia's first interfaith and interracial breakfast for the presidential candidate in 2008.

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