July 18, 2024

Biden delivers Morehouse commencement speech as some on campus express pro-Palestinian messages – NBC News

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ATLANTA — President Joe Biden delivered 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.
In his remarks, Biden ticked through his administration’s policies that he said have aided Black Americans, including a record $16 billion in new aid for historically Black colleges and universities.
And, in a nod to the pro-Palestinian sentiment among Morehouse students and faculty, Biden reiterated his calls for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, more humanitarian aid in the region and support for a two-state solution that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We’ve been working on a deal as we speak. Working around the clock to lead an international effort to get more aid into Gaza, rebuild Gaza. I’m also working around the clock for more than just one cease-fire. I’m working to bring the region together. Working to build a lasting, durable peace,” he said.
As Biden spoke, roughly six students in the crowd sat turned away from him. Though Biden did not reference the action directly, his remarks touched on the “anger and frustration” felt by many Americans over the war, including by members of his own family.
“I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well,” Biden said. “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.”
Following the speech, Morehouse President David Thomas praised Biden for a “thought-provoking speech” he said was reflective of the president “listening.”
“You spoke to the hard issues confronting our nation and the world at this moment,” Thomas said before conferring an honorary doctorate degree onto Biden.
No significant, disruptive protests materialized, but some students and faculty members still expressed their support for Gaza during the ceremony.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations began even before Biden took the stage Sunday morning. As graduates and faculty entered the ceremony, at least eight students and three staff members wore pro-Palestinian garb, some adorned in Palestinian flags and others wearing keffiyeh scarves.
An opening prayer by the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. urged those in power to be “accountable for valuing human life” across the globe.
“Whether they live in Israel or Palestine, Ukraine or Russia, the Congo or Haiti, God give us men that will value life and call us to accountability. Give us men who require all of us to live the golden rule and even follow the edicts of that Palestinian Jew named Jesus,” Lea said as Biden sat inches behind him.
In the most direct call to action of the ceremony, valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher concluded his remarks by calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, framing his decision to speak on the conflict as a moral duty in line with the legacy of fellow Morehouse alumnus Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is important to recognize that both sides have suffered heavy casualties in the wake of Oct. 7,” Fletcher said. “From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children while calling for a release of all hostages. For the first time in our lives, we’ve heard the global community sing one harmonious song that transcends language and culture. It is my stance as a Morehouse man named as a human being to call for an immediate and a permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.”
As Biden took the stage, graduating students remained seated and silent, even as older alumni nearby cheered.
And during his remarks, faculty member Samuel Livingston held up the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an effort to bring attention to ongoing conflict in the region.
Sebastian Gordon, a graduating senior from Washington, D.C., was satisfied with Biden’s remarks. “I know one concern that my class had was actions and words didn’t line up,” Gordon told NBC News. “I’m happy with his words that he said. I’m just going to continue to watch to make sure his actions line up with that.”
The protests during the commencement were largely peaceful, following instructions Thomas, the school president, gave to faculty and students across at least three meetings: The right to protest would be honored as long as they’re not disruptive.
Ahead of the commencement, Thomas told CNN that though he would 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 predicted that protests 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,” sophomore Anwar 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.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that Biden spent several days working on the speech, tapping into a brain trust of senior advisers, including some Morehouse alums, to craft his message to the 415 Black men graduating from the school.
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.”
Biden’s speech at Morehouse came 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 hoped Biden would speak 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,” Karim said. “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.
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 came amid a concerted effort by his administration and campaign in the past 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 attended an event Saturday 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 recognized the “opportunity” Biden had 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.”
Nnamdi Egwuonwu is a 2024 NBC News campaign embed.
© 2024 NBC UNIVERSAL

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