Preacher, activist and Morehouse College alumnus Jamal Harrison Bryant has been on the periphery of two major stories recently playing out on historically black college campuses.
A few months ago, he was the man with a bullhorn during a rally of Bethune-Cookman University students looking for answers on the institution’s financial crisis.
Last week, he announced that his 10,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church raised $12,000 in support of Bennett College’s $5 million campaign to save its accreditation.
Dr. Bryant’s efforts in both areas are commendable and were necessary in the darkest hours facing both institutions. But everything about his ascension as a nationally acclaimed preacher and burgeoning black activist has been more than commendable; it is built on a foundation of dynamism in preaching and presence.
So if Dr. Bryant’s brand has been to be as dynamic and as noticeable as possible, then surely his efforts as the one who wants to be the emergent leader for the HBCU community cannot be anything less.
First, Dr. Bryant has to be a master of the space, much in the way that he masters biblical text and its relation to today’s worshipers seeking guidance and joy, and commands context on issues of social justice. Contrary to his remarks during his Bennett announcement, there are not 118 HBCUs and 80-plus of them aren’t in danger of closing.
Second, Dr. Bryant has to be beyond the common approaches to HBCU advocacy. Fundraising is a cornerstone without question, but the biggest ask for any celebrity in supporting black colleges is to amplify the message that they need enrollment. New Birth averaged just over $1 dollar in giving to Bennett per worshiper according to its reported membership numbers. If half of those worshipers each helped to enroll just one student at an HBCU, it would provide an average of $10,000 in tuition revenue for a campus in one year and more than $50 million in collective tuition revenue for black colleges natinonwide – all coming from one church congregation in Stonecrest, Ga.
It is easy to fundraise for black colleges. Lou Rawls helped the United Negro College Fund raise more than $200 million over 30 years of nationally broadcast telethons and fundraisers. Today, UNCF schools are among the most vulnerable HBCU campuses suffering from financial issues spurred by low enrollment and a lack of investment.
Finally, Dr. Bryant has to take his message beyond Black America’s personal stake in HBCU success, and into the realm of policy influencing. With his social media presence and church followings in Baltimore and Georgia, he has a national platform to engage all kinds of black folks to better understand legislative issues impacting black colleges like voter gerrymandering, budget making, legislative appointments to HBCU boards of directors, and free community college programs, to name a few.
In Baltimore, the city’s two HBCUs have been at the center of a landmark federal lawsuit challenging the State of Maryland’s separate and unequal system of higher education for black and white students. In Georgia, the state’s three public institutions are being threatened by larger consolidated PWIs, and the Atlanta University Center, home of Dr. Bryant’s alma mater, is being encroached upon by a growing Georgia State University, which boasts the largest black undergraduate enrollment of any school in the country.
From a cursory review of his social media, writings, speeches and sermons, it doesn’t appear that Dr. Bryant has made any public comment on any of these HBCUs in the back yards of where he has lived and preached the gospel.
Jamal Bryant yields a world of potential in serving as a knowledgeable and credential celebrity advocate on behalf of HBCUs who can do more than wear t-shirts and deliver messages of love on Instagram. It takes time, research and love to do it, but there’s nothing to suggest that Dr. Bryant can’t manage the task of carrying the HBCU mantle.
But if he doesn’t know how to carry it or isn’t interested in learning how to do so, it would be nice if he could help us find the one who will, rather than masquerading in the part for the sake of guaranteed publicity and goodwill.