The battle for the mind has been a struggle since the creation of man.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent asked the woman, “Did God really say…?”
This was a question to control humanity’s mind and ultimately one’s destiny.
Carter G. Woodson would later prophetically argue that, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.”
Indeed, this is the reason why many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded and became liberal arts institutions. As Dr. Benjamin Mays said to Morehouse students in 1959, “We want Morehouse men to develop keen minds, steel girded character, a social conscience, and above all, we want Morehouse men to be free.”
Freedom of the mind was the goal. For if a man is mentally free, there are no chains that can keep one bound.
It is this spirit and philosophy that led me to Morehouse College in 1992. I wanted to be free and be among those who desired the same freedom for themselves and our people.
The controversy regarding an article I penned last month, “A President for Everyone, Except Black People,” essentially highlights why we need to support our HBCUs. Free speech and free thought are the hallmark of Black colleges and universities.
There was a period in which W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, and others only taught (or were able to teach because of segregation) at HBCUs.
In his book, A Clashing of the Soul, Leroy Davis highlights the “dual selves” that HBCUs encounter as they seek to be free and seek to raise the resources needed to sustain their institutions.
Certainly, this was the challenge of John Hope, president of Atlanta University and Morehouse College in 1920. Davis argues that Hope’s “inner turmoil” was the result of attempting to balance John Hope “the college president” with John Hope “the race leader.” This dilemma still rings true for many of our HBCUs today.
Beloved, mental freedom comes with a cost. When you look at many declining HBCUs, they are floundering not due to a lack of intellectual prowess, but rather because of financial resources (due to declining enrollment) and, more specifically, a lack of alumni giving.
Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, Lincoln, Cheyney, Fisk, etc. will never be truly free, until they are financially free!
The history of HBCUs is rooted and connected to white philanthropists who dared to give large sums of money and endowments so that “Negroes” might attend college. The irony is many of us are now free — we live in big homes, drive nice cars, have children in topnotch colleges and graduate schools — but the institutions that freed us are still not free. They are not free because we have failed to take up the mantle of philanthropy to ensure that our schools are financially and fiscally sound.
For if we do not support Lincoln, Morehouse, Spelman, Cheyney, Fisk, Howard, Hampton, Dillard, and other HBCUs, then we are at fault for our institutions not becoming bastions of liberal arts education, free speech and critical thinking, but rather institutions bound by debt, financial insufficiency, and the chains of perpetual fundraising.
Whether you personally attended an HBCU or not, each one of us must make the commitment to the generations to come to not allow another Black school go under due to a lack of financial support from it’s alumni or the African-American community.
Let’s increase support of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities so that they can be free and continue to liberate our people!
As always, keep the faith!
Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
As President Barack Obama begins his second term, there is something noticeably different about his new cabinet - the absence of African-American leaders and advisors.
The Congressional Black Caucus chair, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio recently sent the president a letter stating, “You have publicly expressed your commitment to retaining diversity within your cabinet. However, the people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.”
When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding.
In American presidential history, President William Jefferson Clinton has been, by far, the most transformational leader.
Clinton appointed seven African-American cabinet members, the most of any president in history: Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce; Mike Espy as Secretary of Agriculture; Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy; Alexis Herman as Secretary of Labor; and Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs. President Clinton also appointed Togo West as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Rodney Slater as Secretary of Transportation.
Compared to Obama, President George W. Bush also had more African-Americans in his cabinet, including the first African-American secretary of state and secretary of education, Colin Powell and Rod Paige, respectively. Bush also appointed Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Alphonso Jackson as secretary of housing and urban development.
For Obama, Eric Holder is the first African-American attorney general and the only African-American cabinet member of Obama’s administration.
In sum, when one compares the first African-American president to his recent predecessors, the number of African-Americans in senior cabinet positions is very disappointing: Clinton (7); Bush (4); and Obama (1). Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.
Moreover, while having African-Americans in senior cabinet positions does not guarantee an economic agenda that will advance Black people, it at least is a starting point and puts us in the driver’s seat. With President Obama, we are not in the driver’s seat - or even in the car.
For me, the absence of African-Americans in a second term is not only disrespectful to the Black community—who voted 96 percent for President Obama in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012, but also underscores a larger problem of economic and job opportunities for the Black community.
Indeed, if we objectively look at Obama’s presidency, African-Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president. At the end of January 2009, unemployment for African-Americans was 12.7 percent. Four years later, the situation is worse, and unemployment is higher at 13.8 percent.
For those of you who have read my articles in The Philadelphia Tribune, you know I have been a very strong supporter of the president and worked hard to get him elected in 2008 and 2012.
Shortly after Obama announced his candidacy to run for the office of President of United States, in 2008 I hosted the first clergy breakfast in Philadelphia to encourage religious leaders to support his candidacy. This was a major gathering at the time, because both Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter were strong supporters of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and were encouraging the clergy to support her and not Obama.
I supported then-Senator Obama not because he was Black, but because I truly believed in my heart that he was the best candidate to empathize, understand, and develop policies to help the African-American community, the poor, and previously under-represented communities.
To my disappointment, the president has not only failed the Black community, but also has failed to surround himself with qualified African-Americans who could develop policies to help the most disenfranchised.
The president’s agenda appears to be for everyone except Black people—his most loyal constituency.
In 2012, two prominent Philadelphia lawyers convened a meeting between White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and a cross-section of Philadelphia’s African-American leadership. The purpose of the meeting was to candidly discuss the president’s re-election strategy and policies toward African-Americans.
The meeting was initially cordial until I mustered the courage to ask Jarrett a question I have heard repeatedly in the African-American community, “Over the past four years, what has President Obama done to help Black people?”
After the question was raised, you could hear a pin drop in the room. Jarrett, who is known as the chief loyalist to the president, did not mince words when she responded to my question and proceeded to fire off the administration talking points: the passing of Obamacare, the increase in PELL grants, etc. She concluded her remarks by saying that we should support the president because “we are family.”
Moreover, when I raised additional questions about persistent high unemployment in the Black community and the lack of appointing an African-American to the United States Supreme Court (a move that could have real and lasting impact on the future of our community), Ms. Jarrett then went for the jugular and said, “The president is the president of all people and not just Black people.”
Jarrett is right. The president is the president of all people, but aren’t Black people part of the “all”? In the words of Langston Hughes, we “too sing America.”
Given the president’s poor record in catapulting an economic and empowerment agenda for the African-American community, we must begin asking the questions:
My questions do not suggest that we should necessarily change political affiliation, but they do suggest that the African-American community must hold political leaders accountable and change our strategy to ensure that we are fully engaged in the political process beyond November elections.
George Burrell, a member of my church, a well-known lawyer, and someone I respect, recently told a group of leaders that having an elected Black politician is not enough. He argues that having an African-American mayor, governor, or president does not guarantee, in and of itself, that the Black elected official’s agenda will be the same as the Black community. After much reflection, I agree with him.
In order for the African-American community to become “real” players in the political process, shaping a politician’s agenda, Burrell argues that the Black community must do what every other community is doing - control the politicians through money.
In the past, the African-American community has relied exclusively on our voting power to advance their agenda. However, voting power is meaningless when politicians are perpetually thinking about their next election and the financial resources they will need to win.
If Burrell is right, then this would be more of a reason why the president should have made appointments that would not only make a difference in our community but further break down barriers in our beloved country. President Obama is not running for re-election, and should have felt empowered to appoint a diverse cabinet and not one reflected of the status quo.
Hence, this is the main issue I have with President Obama and his second term: Obama is more of a historical leader than he is a transformational leader for the African-American community.
If President Obama does not make some changes soon, at the end of his presidency he will be known as a historical leader - the first African-American president, but not a transformational leader - the president who truly uplifted and catapulted Black people from cycles of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and despair.
As we observed across the nation the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, I hope that President Obama and others are reminded that we, too, have dreams that should and must be fulfilled.
As always, keep the faith.
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14
Last year, I presented the vision that God had given me for Bright Hope Baptist Church during our annual Vision Church Conference. During the conference, I shared the story of the historic brand, Eastman Kodak.
Since the 1880s, Eastman Kodak had been at the forefront of all things image-related. They invented the technology we use to capture memories on film for our family photo albums. They also developed the technology we use for digital and video cameras.
However, something happened to Kodak during the digital era. Although Kodak developed the digital technology that we now use in our digital cameras and smartphones, Kodak could not keep up with how their own technology was being used in cell phones, digital imaging, and other technology that emerged over years. Thus, in January of 2012, Kodak — the historic company — filed for bankruptcy because it was having difficulty staying relevant.
How could such a thing happen to a company that not only dominated, but practically created the film and digital industry? You may be asking, “What does this technological story have to do with me and my church?” Well, I would like for you to take a moment, reflect, and ask the question: “Are we, the Church, still living in a Kodak World?”
Bright Hope is a wonderful and historic church. Our impact has been significant and felt internationally, nationally and locally.
Yet, we recently had to ask ourselves as a 103-year-old institution: Are we keeping pace with the ever-changing digital culture? Are we taking advantage of every available means and opportunity to preach the Gospel and make disciples? In sum, is Bright Hope relevant for today’s generation and generations to come?
Not that the church should “conform to the world,” but is the present-day church as concerned as we need to be about the world that continues to walk in darkness? Are we more committed to staying the same and maintaining the status quo, than innovatively reaching new souls for Christ?
Our church and community came into being through the vision God gave the Rev. William H. Gray, Jr. in the 1960s. When Gray and the dedicated members of Bright Hope built the sanctuary where we currently sit and worship, it was not only state-of-the-art, but cutting edge! Bright Hope has always been a church that is engaged in the community, fighting and advocating for the least of these, on the cusp of trends, and most importantly, focused on winning souls for Christ! We will not lose that drive and that determination.
For ministry in the 21st century and beyond, the church cannot lose sight of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. The Gospel makes the church relevant. Jesus’ disciples found that it was the Gospel that made a tremendous impact on their society and continues to make an impact on the world of today. However, we must not go the way of Kodak.
Analysts say that Kodak realized too late the need to change; moved too slowly to change; became complacent, relying too heavily on old product mainstays and misjudged the importance of digital technology. The church must remain faithful to the Gospel, vigilant and concerned about souls and innovative in our methods to reach the world with the greatest story ever told.
Let’s consider the some of the challenges that the modern church is facing:
Seniors are living longer than ever before, and we have to be able to meet their spiritual needs.
There is an increase in divorce, single parenting and blended families. The church has to be equipped to minister to the children and the adults in those situations.
We see an increase in violence among our young people and we have to have the manpower and resources to minister to their spiritual needs, and provide programs to develop, mentor, and save their lives!
Most people are immersed in technology-cell phones, computers, etc., and we must recognize that there is a place for embracing the technology to help us spread the gospel by streaming online, having a website, recording our sermons to reach our world, and in short, using every available voice and mechanism to reach the masses!
Christ is still the answer, but is the church allowing Jesus to reign or our parochial and outdated traditions? As I’ve said before, some things can never, and will never change, like our faith in Christ, reading and staying true to the Word, prayer, healing, teaching, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.
Yet, we must remain innovative to keep the present-day church moving forward by utilizing every possible resource to reach this dying world. Beloved, we cannot get left behind! God has had his hand on all our ministries, but we cannot let tradition keep the church from growing and moving forward. I exhort you to support your pastors, imams, rabbis, etc. as they dare to move the church forward into the 21st century!
As always, keep the faith!
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson. is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, which officially ended slavery in America, African Americans found solace and strength within the “invisible institution” (i.e., the Black church) and the “liberation” narratives in the Bible.
The former allowed African Americans to build and have their own institutions, while the latter served as a source of inspiration and hope as they read the liberation stories of the Hebrew children from their oppressors in Egypt. The Exodus and other Biblical texts, like the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ, inspired oppressed men and women to pursue freedom and the abundant life.
However, there was a flaw in African Americans’ pursuit of liberation and freedom, particularly as it related to the establishment of the Black church. According to Anthony B. Pinn, “one of the most widely debated concerns during the entire history of the Black church, an issue cutting across all denominations, is the role of women within Black church life and activities.” In 2004 Delores Williams argued that:
“When the issue of sexism surfaced in the Black church, particularly in the late 19th century on the heels of the emerging women’s suffrage movement, the Black churches did not see gender equality as a concern — or at least as a concern equal to that of race and class oppression.”
Indeed, this created a major dilemma in the Black church, particularly as it relates to full equality and freedom for both men and women. Williams’ assessment is troubling because it unveils the dilemma that has plagued the Black church since its inception: What do we do with the women?
Although when Blacks left white churches during slavery they were determined to serve God “in Spirit and in Truth,” their doctrine and policy were no different from the white churches that they had left.
This obviously created a schism in the Black church and led some 19th-century Black women, such as Jarena Lee, to challenge the Black church’s doctrine and polity, specifically as it related to women’s leadership roles in the church.
Fed up with racism and now sexism in the church, these women challenged the Black church about its own traditions and raised the following critical faith questions:
“If the man may preach, because the savior died for him, why not the woman, seeinghe died for her also? Is he not a whole savior, instead of a half one, as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach would seem to make it appear?” (Lee, 1986).
Similarly, when a preacher argued at a women’s rights convention that a woman could not have as much right as a man because Christ was not a woman, Sojourner Truth argued: “Whar did your Christ come from?…Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”
These critical responses of Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee raise the issue of servanthood and women’s social roles in the church, and expose the sexist and patriarchal ideologies that have existed in the Black church for years.
In the 20th century, there was a move among some African-American preachers, such as my predecessor the Rev. William H. Gray, III, to reexamine the women’s roles of leadership and expand it in the church. Specifically, at Bright Hope Baptist Church, we not only embraced female preachers, but also female deacons. And under my now six-year tenure as pastor, we have had at least two women to serve as chair of the deacon board.
Part of the reason that pastors have evolved to accept women in leadership positions is because in many African-American churches, women are the “backbone” of the church. Demographically, women come to church more, give more, serve more, and in many cases sacrifice more. This does not discount the men and their service, but shows appreciation to the women of the Black church.
Nevertheless, in 1993 Jacqueline Grant wrote an article, “The Sin of Servanthood,” and offered a stinging critique of women being the “backbone” of the church. For Grant, when women are called the “backbone” of the church, it “may appear to be a compliment, especially when one considers the function of the backbone in the human anatomy.” However, Grant says:
“the telling portion of the word backbone is ‘back’. It has become apparent to me that most ministers who use this term have reference to location rather than function. What they really mean is that women are in the background and should be kept there.”
Certainly, the issues raised by Grant and other womanists undoubtedly have reignited an effort to redefine leadership within the Black church, and to emphasize a more egalitarian view of church leadership.
Congregations that were once Biblical literalist are now embracing a Biblical hermeneutic that is transformative and critically reflective of one’s faith. They are questioning many long-held theological beliefs, such as 1 Timothy 3:2-5, which has often been interpreted as the Bible prohibiting women to be in authority over men.
For example, when the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., pastor of the oldest African-American congregation in Washington, D.C., began to critically assess his views on female deacons, he shared with his congregation the following argument on why they should ordain and embrace female deacons:
“I believe that the word diakonos is never used to describe a person; rather it is used to describe a function. Deacon is not a noun which describes a person, but rather a verb which describes one’s actions. Ultimately, God uses whom he chooses, whether to teach or to preach, or to serve as deacon within the administrative boundaries of the local congregation.”
Hicks’ “Rationale for Female Deacons” is historic, for it not only highlights how a church leader has addressed critical faith issues, but also began to engage a congregation in critically reflecting upon its religious traditions, assumptions, beliefs, and faith.
This shift in faith learning and development is indeed revolutionary, and is currently becoming an unavoidable issue for other traditional Black congregations in America. In our post-modern world, the church must hold to the tenets of Jesus Christ but also be honest with itself regarding traditions that are more church-centered than Christ-centered.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Fixing the public school system in Philadelphia is like building a house in a storm. It can be done, but it’s hard! Over the past several years, there has been a plethora of public educational plans written to provide a road map of success for our children.
These plans have ranged from David Hornbeck’s “Children Achieving” initiative (1994) to the Philadelphia School District Improvement Plan (2000) to Paul Vallas’ “Diverse Provider Model” (2002) to Arlene Ackerman’s “Imagine 2014” (2009) to The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact Report (2011) to the Boston Consulting Group’s “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” (2012).
It shouldn’t be so complicated, but it is. Whoever sits at the helm of the School District of Philadelphia has to be prepared to take the long view, riffle through the debris, and get all the stakeholders to the table to tackle a number of urgent questions that demand our full attention. Amid gusty political and economic winds, our new superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., recently released his own plan entitled, “Action Plan v1.0.”
Hite, I believe, is a good man. I believe that he wants all of our children to learn and succeed. As a concerned parent and pastor of a number of students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public schools, I, too, want all students to be prepared to fulfill their dreams, and to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, teachers, superintendents, mayors, governors, and even president of the United States of America. The plan, however, raises more questions than it answers.
Given the media publicity that surrounded it, I was excited to read Hite’s plan. I expected this plan to be holistic and achieve what the other plans were not able to do: to provide an inspirational vision and plan of action that is student-centered and a road map for educators, administrators, students, parents, politicians and supported by taxpayers.
His plan, however, appears to be missing a critical element — it doesn’t express a heart for our children. His plan, as initially announced in December 2012, proposes to close 37 schools, most of which are in North Philadelphia in Black and brown neighborhoods. Closing buildings will not save nearly as much as the District projects; nor has the District accounted for the substantial financial resources needed to make the transitions/consolidations happen.
The problem with Hite’s plan is not the “v1.0” tech-savvy lingo, indicating this is the first version, but rather that the plan does not inspire, provide a vision, or give the citizens of Philadelphia a visual image of what we can expect as our children matriculate through and graduate from our public schools. Action Plan v1.0 is not student-centered, but Hite-centered.
In his preface, Hite says six times “I have met,” “I have visited,” “I have addressed,” “I have listened,” “I have reviewed” and “I have learned.” Certainly he is to be applauded for his efforts over the past 100 days, but the problem is the superintendent is not an island unto himself. Education is a collaborative process, which includes students, parents, educators, administrators, community leaders and concerned citizens.
If there is one major difference of Hite’s plan compared to his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, it is that “Imagine 2014” was developed in partnership with over 80 key stakeholders from the entire Philadelphia community. Over a period of months, these stakeholders met, discussed, debated, shared, collaborated, and ultimately produced a comprehensive community vision for all children in the School District of Philadelphia. The problem with Action Plan v1.0 is that is not a “we” plan, but an “I” plan.
Moreover, Hite’s plan describes the District as an “enterprise.” Such language immediately leads one to think of “a company organized for a commercial purpose.” If the District is viewed as an “enterprise” or a “commercial business,” then Action Plan v1.0 is extremely problematic and this would explain why a key strategy of the plan is to “become a top-quality charter school authorizer.”
From a fiscal standpoint, Hite’s plan candidly articulates the District’s financial woes and annual $250 million deficit that will hit $1.3 billion in the next five years. It makes it clear that the District’s deficit is the result of “reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue, and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue.” Hite is right in some respects. The deficit has to be dealt with, but deficits aren’t dealt with by reduction in staff, programs and services alone. How are we spending the money that we do have?
Lastly, the plan does not provide a clear rationale for why politicians and taxpayers of the city of Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should support the School District through increased revenues. Or, why should any parent have confidence that this system is primarily focused on educating his or her child?
An annual deficit of $250 million cannot be solved through school closings and continual budget cuts. Hite’s plan is singly focused on deficit-reduction and raises a breadth of questions: How will the plan reduce high school dropout rates? Increase graduation rates? Decrease truancy? Ensure that all children reach proficient levels in reading and math? Where is the “action plan” for teaching and learning? A plan absent of solutions to address these vital areas lacks heart for our children.
In sum, there are too many unknowns and outstanding questions in Action Plan v1.0. But it’s not all on Hite. At some point, the superintendent, the mayor, the governor, politicians and the citizens of Philadelphia will have to make a decision to support and educate our children through increased revenues and/or student-centered spending focused on educational goals and outcomes. Or they should tell our children and their parents the truth — that the balance sheet and bottom line take priority over delivering a quality education for every child in every community.
If the purpose of Action Plan v1.0 is to solely save the district money and get it back on sound fiscal ground, then Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “…education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”
Beloved, we’ve been down this road before and will arrive at the same destination unless we have a passionate vision that is student-centered, fiscally sound, with a heart for our children. We cannot afford to drop the ball again. Our children’s dreams and future cannot wait for the next plan or the next Superintendent.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.