Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at a campaign rally… (Brian Snyder, Reuters )
Reporting from Atlanta — At a packed political forum at Morehouse College — Atlanta's storied and historically black school for men — a moderator posed a question that cut to the sensitive heart of things on a campus that has produced Martin Luther King Jr. (Class of '48) and current GOP darling Herman Cain (Class of '67).
The question: "Does Cain represent the modern Renaissance man of Morehouse?"
A charged murmur rippled through a crowd of about 100 undergraduates.
Traditional African American notions of social justice are part of the very DNA of Morehouse, founded in 1867 to educate recently freed slaves. King is but one star in Morehouse's constellation of civil rights heroes. "The curse of poverty," King once said, "has no justification in our age."
So what about the brash and sometimes-bumbling pizza magnate, the one who last month said, "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself"?
The answers from the five-member student panel were varied — an indication that although black America leans strongly Democratic, this is one majority-black venue where people are willing to take a close look at him.
Panelist Mark Smith, a 20-year-old sophomore, argued that Cain, with his small-government ethos, was "actually finding the edifice of the problem" of government, rather than proposing more expensive programs.
Byron Granberry, a junior and vice president of the campus Democratic group, got big applause when he declared that Morehouse should revoke Cain's degree. Yet in an interview after last week's forum, he asserted, with a Cain-like flourish, that he had only been joking.
Granberry said he disliked Cain's view on social issues but believed that the candidate, with his rags-to-riches rise through the corporate world, had brought honor to Morehouse.
"He's an example we hold up here and model ourselves after," Granberry said.
On the national stage, African American opinions about Cain are something of a moot point as the Republican primaries approach. Zach Bikus of Gallup said the polling company finds so few blacks in its national surveys of Republican-leaning voters that it can't meaningfully measure their opinions on Cain, or anything else.
But the question is a live one at 2,800-student Morehouse, where Cain was well-known before he launched his campaign. He served on the Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2011 and enjoys a distinct home-field advantage.
DeJon Hall, 21, a senior and a Cain supporter, said that while Morehouse leans liberal, "a lot of people are considering Herman Cain because he is our brother." In some cases, he added, "even if they don't support him, they'll argue on his behalf."
In a way, Cain, 65, represents a kind of Morehouse ideal. Raised in a working-class Atlanta family, he was his high school's salutatorian, but was rejected by Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, suspecting, as he writes in his memoir "This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House," that the recently integrated state schools put strict limits on black enrollment.
At Morehouse, he worked his way through school, majoring in math and earning a C average. He was also elected president of the prestigious Glee Club. He has been criticized for not taking part in civil rights demonstrations at a time when Morehouse was a hotbed of activism.
But Cain's success — as former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza and head of the National Restaurant Assn. — is part of another tradition here, one that literally grooms young men to succeed in corporate America: A campus dress code is strictly enforced, and many students wear suits to class, passing posters in which college President Robert M. Franklin admonishes, "Do not self-penalize by entering the public square in the equivalent of a black tuxedo with brown shoes."
In the economics department, not far from the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, signs pointed students to the room where Goldman Sachs was conducting interviews. Another touted an "Acing Your Wall Street Interview" session. It was sponsored by Deutsche Bank.
"We're the school of King, but we cultivate that cohort of the 1% as well," department Chairman Gregory N. Price said with a chuckle.
Price, a Cain supporter, said many of his students were "quite favorable" toward Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan — calling for 9% corporate and personal flat taxes and a 9% national sales tax — after they study it in his class and entertain the professor's argument that it would raise more revenue and "restore some fiscal balance."
Some, of course, won't give Cain the time of day. Political science professor Tobe Johnson, a 1954 Morehouse graduate, said he disagreed with just about every Cain policy. But he was also dismayed at Cain's flashes of ignorance — or, at least, feigned ignorance — on various matters, from the pronunciation of "Uzbekistan" to U.S. involvement in Libya.