Biden addresses ‘humanitarian crisis in Gaza’ at Morehouse amid growing tensions on campuses  • Georgia Recorder


President Joe Biden renewed his call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and highlighted federal spending in historically Black colleges during Sunday’s speech before hundreds of Morehouse College graduates who represent a demographic Biden needs to win the Nov. 5 election. 

Biden’s role as commencement speaker at the storied historically Black college in Atlanta had been met with concern from those who disagree with his handling of Israel’s military response to Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, as well as from those who feared it would be a distraction from the graduates’ achievement.

Biden’s roughly 25-minute speech went uninterrupted and ended with Biden receiving an honorary degree from Morehouse as the crowd applauded. 

“I’m not going home,” Biden quipped with a broad smile after receiving the honor.

But there were some visible signs of discontent on the campus, which is the alma mater of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and which has a long history of social activism. Off campus, well over 100 people, many of them students, gathered to protest Biden’s appearance, largely over his continued support of Israel.

Some graduates, including the college’s valedictorian who wore a small Palestinian flag pin on his stole, displayed some form of the Palestinian flag. A faculty member stood as Biden spoke and turned away with her fist in the air.

With Biden sitting nearby, valedictorian Deangelo Jeremiah Fletcher called for the release of all hostages and for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. 

“It is only right for the class of 2024 to utilize any platform provided to stand in solidarity with peace and justice,” Fletcher said in his speech.

Biden clapped and then greeted Fletcher with a handshake as the graduate left the stage and later addressed the issue in his speech, saying there is a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” He renewed his call for an immediate ceasefire and said he is actively working to find a solution.

“It’s one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it,” Biden said to the graduates. “I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family. But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.

“Leadership is about fighting through the most intractable problems. It’s about challenging anger, frustration, and heartbreak to find a solution. It’s about doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely,” he said.

The speech at Morehouse happened as Biden continues to trail his GOP rival former President Donald Trump in the polls and amid concerns about waning enthusiasm for Biden among young Black voters, who are usually an important part of the Democratic base. 

Black voters in Georgia helped turn the tide in Biden’s favor when he defeated Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020. Pew Research Center’s analysis of the 2020 election found that Black Georgia residents accounted for nearly half of the state’s 1.9 million increase in eligible voters since the turn of the century.

In a New York Times poll published earlier this month, 26% of voters between 18 and 29 said they would vote for Biden if the election were held today, less than any other age group. Another 30% said they would vote for Trump, also less than any other age group.

Biden pledged to continue supporting HBCUs on Sunday, while touting that during his administration, the federal funding for HBCUs has eclipsed a record $16 billion. And he warned of the threats extremists pose to democracy.

“Extremists close the doors of opportunity, strike down affirmative action, attack the values of diversity, equality and inclusion,” he said.

“I never thought I’d be a president at a time when there’s a national effort to ban books. Not to write history, but to erase history. They don’t see you in the future of America, but they’re wrong. To me, we make history, not erase it. We know Black history is American history.”

Rasheed Canton, who graduated from Morehouse on Sunday, said Biden’s commencement speech and the protest calls were hard to ignore as the spring semester wound down. Canton, however, said he wasn’t surprised that Biden’s speech and the rest of the commencement ceremony went smoothly despite simmering tensions.

He said that Trump and Biden will try to spur young Black voters to the polls in November, whether through financial pledges or other promises of support.

“Biden will need to make up some ground heading into November, especially if the war remains at the forefront of minds,” the DeKalb County native said following Sunday’s ceremony. “I’ll still be supporting the Democratic presidential candidate, who I think best represents the values of myself, my Morehouse brothers and the Black community overall.”

Morehouse College released a statement following the graduation ceremony stating the administration was upholding the school’s tradition of supporting the rights of people to protest on behalf of social justice issues in a peaceful manner. The statement also applauded the federal funding for HBCUs and the president’s calls for a ceasefire in the Gaza strip.

“The world frequently quotes our most famous and beloved alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the world must know that without Morehouse, there would be no Dr. King,” the statement said. “It is fitting that a moment of organized, peaceful activism would occur on our campus while the world is watching to continue a critical conversation. We are proud of the resilient class of 2024’s unity in silent protest, showing their intentionality in strategy, communication, and coordination as a 412-person unit.”

Protesters march outside Morehouse campus

While Morehouse commencement’s ceremony was underway, more than 100 demonstrators gathered at a nearby park before marching to Morehouse. Police officers on bicycles pedaled alongside the marchers and blocked them from entering the campus, but the protest remained peaceful.

Standing outside one of the school’s entrances, protesters banged drums and chanted slogans like “Free Palestine” and “Come November, we’ll remember.”

“I don’t like that he’s here,” said Morehouse junior Daxton Pettus. 

A Morehouse student films as protesters march past the campus. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“I think it is horrible that he is here when he has committed atrocious acts against the Black community as far as mass incarceration and supporting bills that further that, atrocious acts as far as sending aid to Israel to aid in their war crimes, and atrocious acts against students, especially, Morehouse-Spelman students were already brutalized at the Emory occupation, and the school failed to say anything, but the president did, and what he said is that those students are violent and that the responses were adequate, and I think that’s inappropriate because that sort of language, it allows for us to be brutalized for those people’s voices to be suppressed.” 

Many of the young marchers said Biden’s appearance smacks of election-year pandering for Black votes, which they said stings all the more because of Morehouse’s association with the Civil Rights Movement.

Andrea Richmond is immersed in the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the group of historic Black colleges in Atlanta that includes Morehouse, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. Richmond graduated from Spelman in 2019 and has a brother who went to Morehouse and a sister who went to Clark Atlanta. Her mom worked at Morehouse for 25 years.

“I’ve grown up in the AUC,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of actions at the AUC. I’ve heard about the aura of the AUC, and I want the AUC to actually stand for what it talks about, which is not only the promotion of Black individuals, but also the promotion of all marginalized people.”

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