Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came to Eastern Michigan University to talk about second chances and redemption, but controversy over his talk for an audience of 600 students on Tuesday night kept the focus on the public's opinion of his criminal activity.
Characterizations of Kilpatrick's speech ranged wildly: MLive described a "personal story of education, leadership and incarceration" filled with "observational humor and "trademark flashes of humility," while the Detroit News reported that Kilpatrick "didn't sound like a person in search of forgiveness," who instead blamed "his past foibles on the media, prosecutors, judges and a Michigan populace that he described as too ready to believe the worst about people."
Kilpatrick addressed his portrayal in the media and negative public opinion about his wrongdoings.
"If you don't give it [forgiveness], just know I've already forgiven myself," he said. "I know I'm a hip hop mayor and they call me a thug and a criminal. ... Most of what you know about me is not me at all."
EMU student group Black Leaders Aspiring for Critical Knowledge brought Kilpatrick to the stage as the first in a new speaker series about redemption. EMU did not pay for the event or officially endorse it, though student groups are allowed to plan their own programming, according to a statement from the university. BLACK paid for Kilpatrick's airfare, but he did not receive any other money for his appearance.
EMU's newspaper, the Eastern Echo, documented the controversy and student opinions surrounding Kilpatrick's visit, which began as soon as the event was announced.
"It blows my mind," student Amberle Heath told the Echo. "I'm very embarrassed, disappointed, and disgusted with the whole thing."
BLACK's public relations officer, Benoris Carter, wanted students to think about Kilpatrick's message, not the former mayor's history. "The message is saying that whatever happened, whatever obstacles, they could be educational, personal or legal, you can overcome them," he told the Eastern Echo.
Heath suggested BLACK decided to bring Kilpatrick to speak solely because of his "celebrity" status.
"I'm sure there have been other inmates that have done things similar to what he's done and they're locked up. They're not being allowed to raise their voice in any kind of a setting, much less an academic setting. So why should he get the chance?" she asked.
While Kilpatrick did reference his past wrongdoings in Tuesday's speech, he refused to answer questions about his most recent corruption allegation, a purported $10,000 bribe he took in a restaurant bathroom that came to light in the federal indictment of Bobby Ferguson on Nov. 16.
"No one remembers the good," Kilpatrick said Tuesday night. "That's because they're so focused on the bad."