June 24, 2024 9:19 am

Morehouse: College divided over Biden’s upcoming graduation speech

As one of the nation’s most preeminent historically black colleges prepares to host President Joe Biden, students say controversy surrounding his visit has overshadowed their graduation.

Mr Biden will travel to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday to deliver the school’s commencement address, a tradition complicated by criticism over his handling of the Israel-Gaza war, which has sparked nationwide college protests.

The speech’s audience and setting – a battleground state critical to Mr Biden’s re-election – also bring into focus the looming November presidential election. Morehouse, one of 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, and the only all-male HBCU, offers Mr Biden a chance to address young black men – a crucial group of voters whose support for the Democratic president has eroded.

While the college has seen a handful of demonstrations against the war in Gaza, they have not reached the size and scope of others. But frustration grew in April after students’ concerns at protests went unanswered and Mr Biden was announced as their graduation speaker.

Some students and faculty called for the president’s invitation to be rescinded.

The college responded by giving students and faculty an opportunity to voice concerns at forums on campus. But Morehouse President David Thomas made clear that Mr Biden would be the speaker.

“It makes me feel like it’s no longer about me,” said Marq Riggins, a Morehouse 2024 graduate who said he’s not enthusiastic about the remarks. “He’s coming here to take pictures with us.”

In a procedural step on Thursday, faculty at Morehouse voted on giving Mr Biden an honorary degree during Sunday’s graduation. Some media reports indicated opposition among faculty, but ultimately they voted in favour of the honorary degree, 50-38.

Mr Riggins is not alone in his frustration and distrust of the president.

A 13 May poll from the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Siena College that examined swing states found the president behind with multiple constituencies he is courting, including younger voters, voters in Georgia and young black voters.

Black voters are a critical voting bloc for Democrats, especially in Georgia, where about a third of the population is black. Mr Biden won Georgia in 2020 by a mere 12,000 votes – one of the slimmest state margins in his victory over former President Donald Trump.

The White House has dismissed recent polls, pointing instead to low black unemployment. Ahead of his November rematch with Mr Trump, Mr Biden also is touting student debt cancellation, infrastructure investments, and more than $16bn in federal funding and investments in HBCUs to black voters.

Steve Benjamin, who leads the White House Office of Public Engagement, told reporters on Thursday he travelled to Morehouse last week to learn from students and faculty “what they wanted to hear on their very special commencement day”.

Mr Benjamin said many students wanted to talk about the Middle East, reconnecting communities and wealth creation. He added that the president believes in free speech and that extends to those who wish to protest at the event.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to being disruptive,” said Mr Riggins, the student. “It’s a sloppy mess of political agendas.”

Brycen Barnes, a Morehouse graduating senior, said he is supportive of Mr Biden’s visit, but doesn’t necessarily want it to be a campaign stop.

“I don’t view it as a necessarily bad thing,” he said. “I’m glad we’re having a president [speak to us]. I want it to be genuine that he’s coming here, I don’t want it to be political.”

Meanwhile, Mr Biden sat for two interviews on black radio stations, including one in Atlanta where he told listeners that Mr Trump hurt black people during his time in office.

“Black unemployment, uninsurance rates went up under Trump,” Mr Biden said. “Trump’s tax plan reinforced discrimination. Typical white households got double the cut of the typical black household. They botched Covid-19 response, leaving black people dead and black-owned businesses shuttered.”

Karoline Leavitt, a campaign spokesperson for Mr Trump, countered that Mr Biden is being forced to buy multimillion-dollar ads to get support from “what he thought was his vote base”.

“Black and Hispanic voters, like all Americans, are worse-off now than they were under President Trump – by a lot – and every poll reflects that reality,” Ms Leavitt told the BBC. “They have less money and higher prices for everything while being forced to live under a weak President who puts illegal immigrants’ interests ahead of theirs.”

On Thursday, Mr Biden marked the 70th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, the historic ruling that found school segregation to be unconstitutional. Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), dismissed questions about Mr Biden and black voters, saying that opinion polls have been wrong in the past.

After the commencement, the president will travel to Detroit to address a NAACP chapter dinner.

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Former US congressman Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee who organised Mr Biden’s visit to Morehouse, said it will give the president a chance to directly address young black people.

“Students understand how worthy it is or what a big moment it is for a president to be addressing their institution,” Mr Richmond told the BBC.

But if Morehouse students choose to protest against Mr Biden, as students have at other graduations across the country, Mr Thomas repeatedly has said he’ll shut down the ceremony.

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