Principal vetoes students’ choice for graduation speaker

The Associated Press
Saturday May 26, 2001

OAKLAND — Students at Castlemont High School voted twice to have a videotaped speech by a controversial death row inmate played at their graduation, but the principal vetoed that and chose a respected preacher instead. 

Seniors had chosen Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case they have studied for the past few years, but Principal Ronald Miller selected Rev. Robert Jackson of the Acts Full Gospel Baptist Church, which pleased the school board and many teachers but angered students. 

Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who was born and raised in Oakland, was convicted of killing a police officer in North Philadelphia in 1981. Many believe he was set up, and he has become a symbol to activists fighting racial injustice and police brutality. 

Students first learned about him during a districtwide teach-in that district leaders tried to block. 

School officials said they do not think Abu-Jamal is an appropriate speaker for commencement next month. 

“I think Pastor Bob Jackson is a wise choice,” school board president Jason Hodge told The Oakland Tribune. “More importantly, he represents what a commencement speaker should stand for, and that is that you can graduate from Castlemont and go and become a productive member of society.” 

But some teachers have said they think the decision reinforces a belief that students don’t have any say. 

And some students say they feel as if they’re losing out. 

“I worked hard to get here, and now they are taking something away from me,” said Donnie Penelton, 18.