Biden to deliver Morehouse graduation speech amid concerns from faculty and students

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday morning, his most direct engagement with college students since the start of the Israel-Hamas war and a key opportunity for him to engage with a group of voters that data suggests is softening on him: young, Black men.

A White House source familiar with the planning for Biden’s commencement address told NBC News that the president plans to use his remarks to “focus on the students” and “address their concerns.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed that sentiment on Friday, telling reporters Biden sees his speech as “an opportunity to lift up and to give an important message to our future leaders.”

“He’s been working on these remarks for the past couple days, I can assure you, with his senior advisers. He’s taking this incredibly seriously,” Jean-Pierre said. “It will meet the moment. And I think you will hear directly from the president on how he sees obviously the future of this country, and also the community that they represent.”

Biden previewed the tone of his remarks during a speech Thursday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Morehouse was founded after our nation’s Civil War to help prepare Black Americans who were formerly enslaved to enter the ministry, earn an education and usher them from slavery to freedom,” Biden said before announcing $16 billion in new investments for historically Black colleges and universities. “The founders of Morehouse understood something fundamental. Education is linked to freedom. Because to be free means to have something that no one can ever take away from you.”

But Biden’s speech at Morehouse will come against the backdrop of protests on college campuses nationwide over his handling over the war in Gaza, with many students and faculty members voicing opposition to the White House’s continued financial and military support for Israel. Some at Morehouse hope Biden speaks directly to those concerns during his commencement remarks.

“I hope that we don’t get boilerplate language. I hope that we get something we haven’t heard before. I hope that his ethical, moral conscience trump any politics,” Morehouse professor Stephane Dunn said at a protest Friday.

Morehouse has also had pro-Palestinian protests on campus, though the HBCU did not see the same scale or escalation of demonstrations as some larger universities.

The school’s decision to host Biden as commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate degree almost immediately sparked protests among faculty and students, some continuing into the days leading up to the commencement ceremony.

“This is one big distraction on a day to celebrate the class of 2024 following Covid-19, but this is also an opportunity for students to make their voices heard during a time of increasing war and genocide in the Middle East,” Morehouse senior Calvin Bell said in reaction to Biden’s visit.

“We as students, faculty and alums who are standing on the right side of history do not stand with Biden,” said another Morehouse student, sophomore Anwar Karim. “We do not align ourselves with all of the clear and avid support that he’s had for a genocidal campaign on the part of the Israelis for the last over 200-plus days.”

Most recently, Morehouse faculty were split over the decision to award Biden an honorary doctorate degree at the ceremony. A letter circulated among staff members in protest of the decision got more that two dozen signatures in support, and the vote to award the degree passed 50-38, with roughly 12 faculty members abstaining.

Divisions on campus led to at least three meetings between Morehouse President David Thomas and students and faculty. In those meetings, Thomas acknowledged the right of the Morehouse community to protest Biden, but encouraged, if not mandated, that those protests not be disruptive.

Ahead of the commencement, he told CNN that though he will not ask police to intervene should protests occur during Biden’s remarks, he would immediately bring the commencement to a halt.

“I have also made a decision that we will also not ask police to take individuals out of commencement in zip ties. If faced with the choice, I will cease the ceremonies on the spot if we were to reach that position,” Thomas said.

Even the most vocal student protesters at Morehouse acknowledged that any protest during the commencement ceremony would likely not be disruptive, partially due to the volatility a police response would likely incite.

“I think that whatever happens on Sunday on the part of the people and the people who want to see some change is going to be peaceful,” Karim said. “I don’t see it erupting like it has at some of the other campuses, because we at HBCUs here are also just mindful of the fact of how interactions with police often go.”

The White House deployed its allies to Morehouse, both formally and informally, to assuage concerns and lower tensions over Biden’s visit.

Steve Benjamin, who heads the White House Office of Public Engagement, met with a small group of Morehouse students and faculty this month following a push from the school’s leadership for “direct engagement” from the White House.

During the meeting, some students expressed concerns about Biden overshadowing their graduation, while others implored Benjamin to ensure Biden’s speech doesn’t double as a campaign stump speech — frustrated with the idea of the commencement address being a vehicle for Biden to bolster support among Black voters.

That sentiment was shared by other Morehouse students critical of Biden’s visit.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he only accepted the invitation after Trump was already in [Atlanta’s] West End, trying to make gains and failing to make gains with our students here,” Morehouse student Malik Poole said at a campus protest ahead of Biden’s visit. “And this is coming at a time where voters of color are fleeing from Biden at record pace.”

But still, Biden’s Morehouse visit will come amid a concerted effort by his administration and campaign this week to sharpen his message to Black voters.

On Thursday, Biden met with plaintiffs and their family members from the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. The following day, he met with leaders of the Divine Nine, a group of historically Black sororities and fraternities, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority herself. During his trip to Georgia, Biden on Saturday attended an event focused on engaging Black voters. And following his commencement address, Biden will close out the weekend by delivering the keynote address at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Detroit, where he plans to tout his administration’s accomplishments for Black Americans.

As data suggests that Black voters — particularly young Black voters — are souring on Biden, some at Morehouse recognize the “opportunity” Biden has to make his case to members of that voting bloc during his address.

“If you want … these students to vote in the fall for you, you have to give them something that shows that you are hearing them,” Dunn said. “That you are trying to do something we haven’t heard about. This is the opportunity.”

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