Biden will deliver Morehouse commencement address during a time of tumult on US college campuses (2024)

ATLANTA (AP) — President Joe Biden is delivering the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, a key opportunity for an election-year appearance before a Black audience but one that also could directly expose him to the anger that some of these and other students across the country have been expressing over his staunch support for Israel in its war against Hamas militants in Gaza.

The White House hinted that Biden would reference the concerns of students and faculty at the male-only, historically Black college over his approach to the war. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “stay tuned,” when asked if the Democratic president would address the worries that sparked weeks of student protests on college campuses nationwide.

The speech, and a separate one Biden is giving later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

After speaking at Morehouse in Atlanta, Biden will travel to Detroit to address an NAACP dinner.

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November’s expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Jean-Pierre said Biden has been looking forward to the Morehouse speech, as he does all of his commencement addresses. He has been writing the remarks himself, along with senior advisers, she said.

“When it comes to this difficult moment in time that we’re in as we speak about the protests, he understands that there’s a lot of pain,” Jean-Pierre said. “He understands that people have a lot of opinions and he respects that folks have a lot of opinions.”

Biden spent part of Saturday warming up for the big speech. He was greeted at Atlanta’s airport by a group of past Morehouse graduates and playfully draped an arm around the shoulder of one. He later stopped at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, a Black-owned restaurant that opened nearly 80 years ago, to briefly address about 50 supporters. A 2024 Morehouse graduate introduced him.

The president joked about being surrounded by “Morehouse Men.”

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

Morehouse’s announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the school’s faculty and supporters who oppose Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and soliciting signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter claimed that Biden’s approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse’s most famous graduate.

The Hamas Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to local health officials.

In an extended interview with The Associated Press, Thomas sought to play down the prospect of students protesting during the ceremony. He held up the all-male campus as a place that, like other historically Black colleges and universities, can balance social justice and political activism with a sense of order and decorum befitting commencement and a presidential address.

“I think you will find on a spectrum that we represent both ends – those who are vehemently opposed to the president coming to speak and those at the other end who think it’s a great thing … and who don’t see a contradiction between their feelings about what’s going on in Gaza and the president coming,” he said.

But some students at Morehouse and the adjacent campuses that make up the Atlanta University Center (AUC) remain staunchly opposed to Biden’s appearance. They accuse Thomas and Morehouse trustees of prioritizing status and establishment political alliances over the values the school espouses.

AUC students, faculty and alumni held a rally and die-in against Biden on Friday.

“If our illustrious HBCUs and administrators really loved the activism they claimed to be for and use as a marketing tool then they would … stand with us as we pray to God, ‘From the West End to the West Bank,’” said Morehouse junior Lonnie White of Atlanta, among the students who participated in two AUC demonstrations in recent weeks.

Student protest leaders said they know of no organized protest plans within the commencement site itself.

“I don’t even have a ticket,” said Morehouse sophom*ore Anwar Karim, who led a petition calling on Thomas to rescind Biden’s invitation.

Karim said he expected some students to attend nearby gatherings planned previously to commemorate the birthday of Malcolm X, a Black leader often credited with advancing the Black Power philosophy as a Civil Rights-era alternative to King’s practice of civil disobedience.

Thomas said in the interview that silent, non-disruptive protests would be tolerated, but repeated a pledge to halt the ceremony if disruptions mount.

Former U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus and Biden campaign co-chairman who helped broker the president’s appearance, called the graduation a “solemn event” and said the gravity of the moment should give potential protesters pause.

“I would hope that people will not interrupt a once-in-a-lifetime moment like that for those students and those parents and grandparents who are there to see these young men walk across that stage,” Richmond said.

In Detroit, Biden was set to visit a Black-owned small business before delivering the keynote address at the NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an “uncommitted” effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state’s Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden’s visit are planned for Sunday afternoon in Dearborn. Another protest rally is expected later that evening outside Huntington Place, the dinner venue.

___

Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.

Biden will deliver Morehouse commencement address during a time of tumult on US college campuses (2024)

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