Roundtable: Al Sharpton Facing Tax Trouble?

Al Sharpton

Al Sharpton speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in October 2007. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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The Internet is buzzing about Al Sharpton's supposed problems with the tax man.

On today's bloggers' roundtable, Farai Chideya moderates a discussion about that, plus more controversy surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, and Morehouse College graduating its first white valedictorian.

Joining in the conversation are Arlene Fenton of Black Women Vote; Jozen Cummings of Vibe magazine's Speak Easy; and Duane Brayboy of Black Informant.

Valedictorian Makes History

Morehouse College in Atlanta is a historically black college for men, famous for graduating prominent African American leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. But this year, for the first time ever, the valedictorian of Morehouse is white. Joshua Packwood explains why he chose Morehouse and what it has been like to be a minority on campus.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It is commencement time across the country, and a lot of colleges and universities are noted for particular qualities. But one has the distinction of not only graduating black men in large numbers, but also for training some of this countries most distinguished African-American males. Morehouse College in Atlanta is that school. But even with that background, when the men graduate this weekend, one man in particular will stand out: Joshua Packwood. His 4.0 grade point average earned him the honor of being named class valedictorian. But what also makes him stand out is that he is the school's first white valedictorian since its founding in 1867. He is with us now. Congratulations. Welcome.

Mr. JOSHUA PACKWOOD (Valedictorian, Morehouse College): Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Congratulations certainly in order for this big honor, this big achievement, and also, of course, for your graduation. Now I know you've had a lot of choices, so why Morehouse?

Mr. PACKWOOD: I think it came down to gaining a unique perspective that would allow me to grow. And you know really the end of that was to become a leader that could create change in our world. And I think that's really where I saw the differences. You know, Columbia, the other Ivy Leagues, absolutely have a legacy of producing leaders, but Morehouse really stood out because it's been able to have the same results and have these change agents, these epic and giant men, yet with very little resources. And a black school in the south to boot. And that really was impressive to me and I really wanted to experience that and see what we call "the Morehouse mystique" really was? Would it help me grow and mature? It absolutely has.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Morehouse, Spike Lee, David Satcher. Did you feel like you were part of the Morehouse mystique? And particularly, did you feel like you were welcome from the outset?

Mr. PACKWOOD: From day one, without a doubt. In fact, before I actually came to the school in the fall, I visited for about a week to interview for the presidential scholarship. And during that experience I was welcomed. And I met with many faculty. I met with the administrators. I met with the students. I interacted in social events. And from the very beginning, people took the time and effort to get to know me and didn't write me off as, you know, an outsider, or as just a white student, or that white boy on the yard. And that was extremely impressive.

MARTIN: You know, I have a friends who are non-African-American who've gone to majority-black schools, like Howard Law School, for example.

Mr. PACKWOOD: Oh course.

MARTIN: And one friend in particular told me that when she was there, there were black students who confronted her to say you could have gone anywhere, but you are taking somebody's spot who really needs to come here. Did anybody ever say that to you? And how did you respond?

Mr. PACKWOOD: Yes. That has been said. And it actually has been far more rare then I'm sure many people would think, actually. But when those occurrences have happened, you know, the first thing I do is listen to what they have to say, listen to their perspective. And the reality of the matter is that oftentimes they have some very valid reasons. It's not normally out of complete malice. Sometimes they are not completely irrational. And you know, I've come to empathize with their perspective. Not necessarily agree - I'd certainly not be a proponent of it - but nonetheless empathize and understand that they have some valid points.

And one student in particular comes to mind. And you know, we actually have become very close, and it is because we had an open dialogue. And he came up to me after he found out the news, and he said he was proud of me. He said he still wished it was a black valedictorian. Nonetheless, he was proud of me, and he said I was well deserving of it. He said that was something that they needed to work on, so.

MARTIN: That's great. You know, we've been talking a lot about race this year, obviously in part because of Barack Obama's historic candidacy, and so forth. I wonder if you feel you have some thing to offer to racial dialogue in this country as the rare white person who's had the experience of being part of a minority. An elite minority to be sure, but a minority.

Mr. PACKWOOD: Absolutely. I think if I don't do that, I've failed all the people who've help me get this far, and I've failed my institution, I've failed Morehouse, I've failed the family that raised me and really helped me turn my life around - and that being the Joneses, who were a black family - I've failed my girlfriend, I've failed all my friends in high school, if I don't add to that dialogue.

And quite frankly, you know, it might come to a point where I may need to step up and lead that dialogue in some aspects. And Morehouse has prepared me for that. And I'm forever indebted to them, and you know, if I don't go through with that when those opportunities arise, then in many ways I should be labeled a coward or someone who was has dropped the ball and not taken up my responsibilities.

MARTIN: Spoken like a Morehouse man. Joshua Packwood, valedictorian, the Morehouse College class of 2008. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much, and congratulations once again.

Mr. PACKWOOD: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

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