This is a story of redemption, a tale of obstacles overcome, statistics defied, clichés silenced. Last week, Genarlow Wilson, once judged an irredeemable sex offender, graduated from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the small, all-men’s institution that is the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr.
Convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl during a raucous, alcohol-and-marijuana-fueled New Year’s Eve party in metro Atlanta in 2003, Wilson served more than two years of a 10-year prison sentence. Though the sex was consensual and Wilson was just 17 at the time, the law — carelessly written — judged him an adult taking advantage of a child.
Perhaps more than most, Wilson appreciated the advice in President Barack Obama’s commencement address, a familiar recitation of exhortations and down-home wisdom. He had lived some of the experiences of which Obama spoke, been down some of the paths the president described:
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.
Wilson acknowledges the bad choices he made that fateful night. He has crisscrossed the country speaking to teenagers, warning them against alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity. As he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I look back, shake my head and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that. That is not the person who I am now.'”
But he didn’t view himself a sexual predator; he wouldn’t accept a sentence that dictated that he belonged on the sexual offender registry for life. He fought the judgment of a system that saw him as just another young black criminal with a future defined by his rap sheet. He reclaimed his life and joined a proud class that sat in pouring rain to hear the nation’s first black president praise them, encourage them, challenge them:
Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world … Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.