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Student Murder Shatters ‘Morehouse Mystique’

Student Murder Shatters ‘Morehouse Mystique’

By Alton Hornsby Jr.

The body of Carlnell Walker Jr. was found stuffed in the trunk of his car in July by Clayton County, Ga., police. The 23-year-old was identified as a junior business major at Morehouse College. Three weeks later, the police announced that at least four other current or former Morehouse students had been arrested and charged in the brutal killing. Another suspect, who has been previously involved in criminal activity, was captured in Illinois.

The news could not have come at a worse time for the college. At the time, Morehouse was reveling in international publicity after being named custodian of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, formerly stored in the home of the late Coretta Scott King. The group of Atlanta political and business leaders who underwrote the $32 million loan to purchase the papers from the King estate chose Morehouse because it was King’s alma mater and because of its reputation as one of the most highly regarded institutions of higher education in the United States.

The image of this historically Black male college has rested for more than a century on the classical “Morehouse man” —  intelligent, articulate, poised and polished in the social graces. He exhibited moral character and espoused the basic values inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The college, keenly aware of “the Morehouse mystique,” deliberately promotes that image. But that ideal has been tarnished somewhat in recent years.

Homophobia has resulted in at least one highly publicized violent incident. In 2004, one student severely beat another with a baseball bat for what’s been called a “homosexual glance.” And although Morehouse campus security continues to suggest that incidents of campus violence are few, there have been consistent reports of fights among students, robberies, burglaries, drug distribution and drug abuse. Within the last decade, at least three students have been murdered off campus.

Following reports of the most recent murder, many Morehouse alumni, as well as others, have raised questions about the contemporary climate, the environment and the culture at the college, particularly as it concerns student behavior. These questions have taken on new intensity following  the alleged rape of a young Black exotic dancer by three members of Duke University’s men’s lacrosse team. The Duke case is just another example that there are anti-social forces at work on many of the nation’s college campuses.

Morehouse is not immune from such forces. Until fairly recently, the college, both inside and outside of the classroom, consciously tried to provide an atmosphere that promoted the best of what it deemed the spiritual and personal values that made for good citizenship and “the beloved community.” A hallmark of this effort was the daily chapel services that all students were required to attend. In recent times, however, the college’s student population has grown too large to have all students attend even a weekly assembly. And the required assemblages, which carry the lofty name of “Crown Forum,” are opposed by some students. Some have even expressed their discontent through disruptive behavior during the assemblies.

In the present environment, the Morehouse administration and the
faculty are faced with several apparently countervailing forces. The Morehouse mission, its goals and objectives and its student regulations remain traditional for the most part. The school is dedicated to producing leaders who are taught about their Black heritage and who show a special responsibility to the disadvantaged around the world. While dedicated to attracting the best qualified students, as measured by grades and test scores, the college continues to admit students who may fall below its high standards but who show promise.

These “diamonds in the rough” have often graduated with some of the college’s highest honors, and many have gone on to important leadership positions in the United States and abroad. Among these rough diamonds, as well as among more highly qualified students, there may appear a student from “the streets” of urban America or even an ex-convict. In fact, the recently murdered Morehouse student had been incarcerated as a juvenile offender.

A diverse student body will inherently reflect the complex problems present in the larger society. But the impact of anti-social behavior is compounded when otherwise well-mannered students engage in uncivil behavior. With these challenges, Morehouse, like other colleges, has to make difficult choices between allowing individual freedom of expression, which often results in behavior problems, or instilling and enforcing a code of conduct that will adhere more to its mission, goals and objectives.  

— Dr. Alton Hornsby Jr., a 1961 graduate of Morehouse College, is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of History at the college.

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