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Homophobic Speech Sours Community Graduation Event

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 23, 2006

A speaker’s comments disparaging homosexuality cast a cloud over an informal high school graduation ceremony earlier this month. 

Evangelical preacher the Rev. Manuel Scott Jr. made derogatory remarks about gays as part of his keynote address at the annual Berkeley High School African-American Studies Department Celebration of Excellence June 10. 

The event, sponsored by community members and the chair of the department—though it is not an official Berkeley High graduation—assembled hundreds of students, families, church figures and others at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Berkeley, to honor students’ successes. 

Scott, a Los Angeles-based Baptist Evangelist, gave a five- to 10-minute speech themed “After you graduate, be careful what you put in your system.” He identified an assortment of temptations to which students must not succumb such as drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. Rounding out the list was homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality. 

School board Director Nancy Riddle, who attended the ceremony as she has each year for four years, was appalled. 

“I know some people have those religious beliefs, but it was still shocking to hear,” she said. 

Some people in the audience were visibly bothered, a ceremony participant said. Riddle received a phone call from a parent upset by the sermon, as did City Councilmember Darryl Moore, the first openly gay, black public official in the East Bay. 

“I do think these graduations are great, but I think there is no place for homophobic comments,” Moore said. “We in Berkeley appreciate the diversity of our community. I think the speaker could have been just as forceful without making these extremely negative comments.” 

BHS African-American Studies Department Chair the Rev. Robert McKnight, who is responsible for the event, stands behind the speaker. 

“We do not censor anyone,” he said. “We defend free speech for everyone. If it’s right wing, if it’s left wing or in the middle, it’s free speech.” 

McKnight approached Scott, a longtime friend, to serve as keynote speaker. The evangelist was paid an honorarium for his services. Past speakers have included a former NAACP youth director and local clergy members. 

In a phone interview Thursday, Scott reiterated his message from the pulpit. 

“Homosexuality, bisexuality, they are sins according to the word of God,” he said. “I understand that the climate (in Berkeley) is a climate that values political correctness, but that’s not my concern. I’m concerned with biblical correctness.” 

The Celebration of Excellence is a 16-year-old, community- and church-supported tradition in Berkeley, which has come to be known as the black graduation—though it is open to all students, McKnight said.  

“This is the largest and most positive event in the African-American community,” he said.  

This year’s ceremony involved prayer, homage to African-American leaders who have passed, the awarding of scholarships, and featured several guests, including Berkeley resident Doris Branch-Tabor, B-Tech Academy Principal Victor Diaz and Riddle, who spoke in place of Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp. 

Students stood before audience members, introduced themselves and revealed their post-high school aspirations. Aside from Scott’s comments, the event was lively and inspirational, Riddle said. Several of those in attendance agreed, the ceremony was, overall, very positive.  

“It’s an opportunity for the black students to have some words and be encouraged by leaders of the black community,” said Michael McBride, who works with African-American male students at B-Tech.  

The African-American celebration was one of three cultural high school graduation ceremonies held at local churches this year. (The others were for Latino and Asian students.) They are supplementary to and unaffiliated with the official Berkeley high school convocation, which took place Friday, June 16, at the Greek Theatre. 

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) retains stringent policy on controversial speakers, but the rules don’t apply to cultural celebrations because they are not district-sanctioned. 

On Wednesday, Board Vice President Joaquin Rivera, who is gay, said BUSD should clarify its role relative to these ceremonies.  

“I know they may be community events…” he said, “but anytime there’s that kind of hate speech, it’s completely unacceptable.”