Morehouse College prepares for Biden’s commencement address

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When he gives the commencement address at Morehouse College, President Biden will have his most direct engagement with college students since the start of the Israel-Hamas war at a center of Black politics and culture.

Morehouse is located in Atlanta, the largest city in the swing state of Georgia, which Biden flipped from then-President Donald Trump four years ago. Biden’s speech Sunday will come as the Democrat tries to make inroads with a key and symbolic constituency — young Black men — and repair the diverse coalition that elected him to the White House.

The announcement of the speech last month triggered peaceful protests and calls for the college administration to cancel over Mr. Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. Some students at Morehouse and other historically Black campuses in Atlanta say they vociferously oppose Mr. Biden and the decision to have him speak, mirroring the tension Biden faces in many communities of color and with young voters nationally.

Fences started going up Thursday around the campus as concern built over possible protests.

Morehouse President David Thomas earlier this week warned he would halt graduation ceremonies if demonstrations erupt.

“If my choice is 20 people being arrested on national TV on the Morehouse campus, taken away in zip ties during our commencement, before we would reach that point, I would conclude the ceremony,” Thomas told NPR.

For weeks, some students and faculty have challenged leaders of the historically Black college to rescind Mr. Biden’s invitation over his administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

“We feel that all of his decisions do not reflect the moral compass of ourselves as students of this institution, and largely of the Black American population,” Morehouse sophomore Anwar Karim told CBS News.

Last week, the White House dispatched senior Biden adviser Stephen Benjamin to meet with students on campus. 

“I think as long as they’re peaceful protests that don’t disrupt the amazing moment that is for each of those graduates there today, I think we’ll all consider this a success,” Benjamin said during a White House briefing.  

Fabin Nwaduba, an engineering graduate, told CBS News, “This is one of the happiest days of my life. If they (protesters) come over and ruin it, I’m going to be hurt.”

Thomas said in an interview with The Associated Press that the emotions around the speech made it all the more important that Mr. Biden speak.

“In many ways, these are the moments Morehouse was born for,” he said. “We need someplace in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us. If Morehouse can’t hold those tensions, then no place can.”

The president’s visit comes at a critical time in the battleground state. While Mr. Biden flipped Georgia in 2020, if the election were held today, a recent New York Times/Siena poll showed him losing to Trump by 10 points, as both candidates try to shore up support with Black voters. 

Sunday’s speech will culminate a four-day span during which Mr. Biden will concentrate on reaching Black communities. On Thursday, Mr. Biden met privately with plaintiffs from the Brown v. Board of Education case that barred legal segregation of America’s public schools. The following day, Mr. Biden will address an NAACP gathering commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landmark decision.

Many younger Black people have identified with the Palestinian cause and have at times drawn parallels between Israeli rule of the Palestinian territories and South Africa’s now-defunct apartheid system and abolished Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Israel rejects claims that its system of laws for Palestinians constitutes apartheid.

“I think that the president will do himself good if he does not duck that, especially when you think about the audience that he will be speaking to directly and to the nation,” Thomas told the AP.

Blowback at Morehouse started even before Thomas publicly announced Mr. Biden was coming. Faculty sent executives a letter of concern, prompting an online town hall. Alumni gathered several hundred signatures to urge that Thomas rescind Mr. Biden’s invitation. The petition called the invitation antithetical to the pacifism Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse alumnus, expressed when opposing the Vietnam War.

Some students note that leaders of Morehouse and other HBCUs did not always support King and other Civil Rights activists who are venerated today. Morehouse, for instance, expelled the actor Samuel L. Jackson in 1969 after he and other students held Morehouse trustees, including King’s father, in a campus building as part of demanding curriculum changes and the appointment of more Black trustees.

Students organized two recent protests across the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically Black institutions in Atlanta that includes Morehouse.

“Our institution is supporting genocide, and we turn a blind eye,” said Nyla Broddie, a student at Spelman College, which is part of the AUC. Brodie argued Mr. Biden’s Israel policy should be viewed in the broader context of U.S. foreign policy and domestic police violence against Black Americans.

Thomas told the AP he “feels very positive about graduation” and that “not one” Morehouse senior — there are about 500 at the all-male private school — has opted out of participating.

“That’s not to say that the sentiments about what’s going on in Gaza don’t resonate with people in our community,” Thomas said.

Thomas met privately with students as did several trustees. The Morehouse Alumni Association hosted a student town hall, featuring at least one veteran of the Atlanta Student Movement, a Civil Rights-era organization.

But there was a consistent message: Uninviting the president of the United States was not an option. When students raised questions about endowment investments in Israel and U.S. defense contractors, they said they were told the relevant amounts are negligible, a few hundred thousand dollars in mutual funds.

HBCUs have not seen the crackdowns on protests from law enforcement like those at Columbia University in New York City and the University of California, Los Angeles. However, Morehouse and the AUC have seen peaceful demonstrations, petitions and private meetings among campus stakeholders. Xavier University, a historically Black university in Louisiana, withdrew its commencement invitation for U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, citing a desire among students “to enjoy a commencement ceremony free of disruptions.”



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