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.
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?
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.