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

ATLANTA– President Joe Biden will deliver the speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, a significant election-year occasion for a Black audience but one that could also expose him directly to the anger some of these and other students across the country have experienced . He expressed his unwavering support for Israel in its war against Hamas militants in Gaza.

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

The speech, and a separate speech Biden will give later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black voters by the president, who has seen his support among these voters decline since their strong support put him in the Oval Office placed. in 2020.

After a speech 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 the expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump in November. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and should repeat — boosted by strong black voter turnout in both cities.

Jean-Pierre said Biden is looking forward to Morehouse’s speech, as he does for all his farewell speeches. He wrote the comments himself, along with senior advisers, she said.

“When it comes to this difficult moment that we are in now that we are talking about the protests, he understands that there is a lot of pain,” Jean-Pierre said. “He understands that people have a lot of opinions and he respects that people have a lot of opinions.”

Biden spent part of Saturday warming up for the big speech. He was greeted at the Atlanta airport by a group of former Morehouse graduates and playfully threw an arm around the shoulder of one of them. He later stopped at Mary Mac’s, 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 the presence of “Morehouse Men.”

Biden has spent the past week reaching out to Black voters. He met with plaintiffs and family members of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that banned 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 caused some backlash among the school’s faculty and among supporters opposed to Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. Some Morehouse alumni distributed an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and asking for signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to withdraw the letter.

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

Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on October 7 killed 1,200 people. According to local health officials, the Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Thomas tried to downplay the prospect of students protesting during the ceremony. He called the all-male campus a place where, like other historically black colleges and universities, social justice and political activism can be balanced with a sense of order and decorum befitting a commencement and a presidential address.

“I think you’ll find on a spectrum that we represent both sides – those who are vehemently against the president coming to speak and those on the other side who think it’s a great thing… and who see no contradiction between their feelings about what is going on in Gaza and the arrival of the president,” he said.

But some students at Morehouse and the adjacent campuses that make up the Atlanta University Center (AUC) remain strongly opposed to Biden’s actions. They accuse Thomas and Morehouse administrators of prioritizing status and building 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 used it 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, one of the students who participated in two AUC demonstrations in recent weeks.

Leaders of student protests said they were aware of no organized protest plans at the starting location itself.

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

Karim said he expected some students to attend nearby gatherings previously scheduled to commemorate the birthday of Malcolm of civil disobedience.

Thomas said in the interview that quiet, non-disruptive protests would be tolerated, but reiterated a pledge to halt the ceremony if disruptions increase.

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

“I hope that people will not interrupt such a unique moment 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 scheduled 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 re-election bid.

Wayne County also has one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country, primarily in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of a “unaligned” effort that received more than 100,000 votes in the state’s Democratic primary and spread across the country.

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


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