All the King's men

A Morehouse man is obvious only to another Morehouse man. Suits worn at job interviews are dark. Stripes on ties must ascend: always left to right. Hair must be groomed, shoes shined. Manners — impeccable.

What best defines a man who graduated from the historically black Morehouse College, an all-male institution that boasts such great alumni as former Surgeon General David Satcher, filmmaker Spike Lee and the late Martin Luther King Jr.?

Initially, the question stumps Michael Collins, the longtime chief of staff to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose Atlanta district encompasses Morehouse. Lewis holds an honorary degree from Morehouse. The college counts Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) and former Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), his son, as well as former Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) among its graduates.

Sean Bailey, who works for a legislative branch agency he won’t name, jumps in. “It’s a standard by which every other thing has been measured,” he says. “You’re an heir to a great legacy, not just Martin Luther King but a host of unsung heroes. These are the ones we aspire to be like.”

Before long, Collins comes up with a response.

“What do you tell a Morehouse man?” he asks, to which the other men begin laughing loudly. “Not much,” he replies, providing the punch line.

Point being, a Morehouse man is well prepared for life. No one needs to tell him what he already knows.  

Last week Collins and Bailey convened in the Longworth cafeteria with seven fellow Morehouse graduates. The men, who range in age from 22 to 41 and span all political sectors of Washington, from intern to aide to lobbyist, began meeting here last month as an ongoing club of Morehouse graduates.

So far the number has reached 14.

The purpose of their club is not social. Anyone can meet for cocktails, they say. Their goal is to carry out the legacy of Morehouse College in every way possible and to get Congress educated about the school.   

“Morehouse stands to gain by being up here,” says healthcare lobbyist Lodriguez Murray, explaining why he wants to make sure that Morehouse’s new president, Robert Franklin, is politically savvy and engaged in Congress’s appropriations process. “We want to make sure we help people from our alma mater get the same opportunity [we received].”

Murray says his alma mater has “uniquely prepared” him to represent historically black medical schools in Washington, such as the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Many of these men gave up substantial scholarships from places such as Princeton and elsewhere to attend Morehouse. Many gave up more lucrative jobs in the private sector to work on Capitol Hill.

“Every day we have the opportunity to change people’s lives,” Collins says by way of explanation. “Nothing has meant more to me than attending Morehouse. That spirit is always with us.”  

Black lawmakers hire Morehouse graduates without hesitation. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) has had three alumnae on his staff, and two are current aides. He insists that if he had to choose between two employees, both with similar credentials, and one was a Morehouse grad, the choice would be obvious. “The one thing that binds them together is not only the legacy but the credo,” Rush says. “It’s a standard of excellence.”

Curtis Johnson, a legislative correspondent to Rush and one of the club’s principal organizers, offers a description of a Morehouse man. “We embody what we were taught in our work, our dress, our drive and in everything that we do,” he says.

Something else to note about club members is an unfaltering politeness with which they comport themselves. They stand to greet one another. They listen respectfully, intently, without interrupting. No one stands out as the all-knowing boss of the group. The politeness may be upbringing. But it may also be the etiquette training they received at Morehouse, in which they were taught skills such as how to dress professionally, how to stay away from “the girls” known as “Polly” and “Esther” and how to write thank-you notes after job interviews.

Their philosophy is service, but they are not perfect at it. “I’m not saying we’re all here saving the world, but we’re trying,” says Daraka Satcher, chief of staff to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who appears to be the group’s voice of humility. He says he doesn’t want to give the false impression that all Morehouse graduates are all out there doing great things. “We all certainly try to excel. Not all of us do.”

In addition to etiquette courses came lessons about faith. Each week the school required the men to attend King Chapel, named for the slain civil rights leader. The activity is commonly known as “Crown Forum.” There is a saying at Morehouse, they explain: “Above a Morehouse man’s head is a crown.”

In that spiritual vein, Johnson says, “There is no accident in us going to Morehouse. There is no accident in us all being here.”

The current club is not the first attempt at rallying Morehouse alumni on Capitol Hill. In the late ’90s, Morehouse graduates began meeting regularly when Hilliard gave Daraka Satcher, then his intern, the task of bringing Morehouse graduates on the Hill together. Since then, the group has seen the introduction of a female lobbyist to represent the school as well as aide after aide after aide acquiring jobs in congressional offices, on committees and at lobbying firms.

In recent years, however, the group disassembled. It’s the recent graduates who wanted to see the club revived.

“They are informal gatherings to discuss formal ideas,” says Tom Dawson, healthcare counsel for the Small Business Committee. At 41, he is the elder of the group.  

Dawson speaks of the “leverage of influence” he’d like to see Morehouse have on the Hill. “There are a number of us in key positions to be a linkage to that community,” he says. “There are a lot of us here, and there should be more of us here.”

The reputation around the Hill, they say, is that wherever a Morehouse man goes, success follows. “I have not heard yet of an instance where a Morehouse man has not exceeded what he has been asked to do,” Dawson says.

Dawson says that people who hire African-Americans tend to lower their expectations, but that it is not necessary to do so. “I don’t think you see a guy here with a speech impediment,” he says, looking around the group of Morehouse grads.
Murray adds, “It’s a challenge every day — even before you walk out the door.”

Bring up the tight race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and the reaction is dead silence followed by the men looking from one to the other.

They begin in generalities. “We just want everyone to vote,” Murray says.

Johnson tries a broader perspective: “Everybody here is trying to get the country to be a better place. It crosses all ethnic lines.”

In truth, they explain finally, many here have opinions that differ from their bosses’. Satcher says, “I don’t think it can be denied that it’s significant. It’s important to note that we don’t see this as a game, that because he [Obama] is the first black candidate that we’re all jumping in line.”

To see these men together — though some have barely known one another for a month — the bond is palpable. “Good to see you, sir,” one young man says, shaking hands. “Good to see you, brother,” says another while offering a hug. Going to Morehouse, it seems, is not just any four-year college. It’s a rite of passage.

“We love each other like brothers,” Johnson says.

“It’s definitely an indoctrination,” Dawson adds.

As Collins sees it, “It’s a unique fraternity.”

Hassan Christian, an aide to Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), has a spiritual connection: “We are blessed to have gone to Morehouse. It is not lost on us. We are very appreciative of what we have been given.”

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, all the men here took the day off work. For many, however, it is to be thought of as a day of service. “It is a day on, not off,” says Harry Johnson, a new intern for Lewis who got to work on King’s papers, which were released to the college last year. This past weekend, Johnson held his birthday bash at Tabaq, a sleek U Street eatery. The purpose was fun, but he also turned it into a clothing drive in order to be of service for the federal holiday.

Not all the men are so outwardly enterprising.

Satcher, the chief of staff to Rep. Johnson, admitted he wasn’t likely to hold a drive on the King holiday. “Even if it comes down to reflecting on what I can or should be doing, it’s better than nothing at all,” he says.