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Biden is set for the Morehouse graduation. Students are divided

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden spoke about protests that have roiled many U.S. college campuses. Among their demands is for the Israeli military to leave Gaza. Biden said students have a right to protest but not to be disruptive. He is set to speak at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday.
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AFP via Getty Images
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden spoke about protests that have roiled many U.S. college campuses. Among their demands is for the Israeli military to leave Gaza. Biden said students have a right to protest but not to be disruptive. He is set to speak at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday.

In the lull between the last classes of the school year and the start of finals season, a trio of seniors convene on one of the Morehouse quads: Jordan Washington, Wisler Charles and DeAngelo Fletcher.

With the lion's share of their years at the Atlanta HBCU behind them, they reflect on the handful of days ahead — specifically, graduation.

President Joe Biden is giving their commencement address on Sunday and campus has been abuzz for weeks.

Their friend group represents a spectrum of student opinion.

"I don't care who speaks," said Washington. "I just want to walk the stage. I want to celebrate with my family."

For Washington, the discourse about President Biden has eclipsed why this weekend's ceremony is so important.

"We're the COVID class of high school. So a lot of people didn't get graduations," he said. "And now it feels like [for] our college graduation ... people are focusing more on the speaker."

"Biden didn't do four years here," he said. "We did."

Wisler Charles feels similarly.

"Am I happy about Biden? Not really," he sighs. "If everything about our graduation is about Biden, it's going to be a problem for us and our families."

Charles said, "I know there's thoughts of protest," adding that some folks in his class approached him to join a silent demonstration, turning his back on Biden as he speaks. "Because my family has pushed me to this point and supported me up until this point ... I have an obligation to not turn my back."

Morehouse College is set to host President Biden as its commencement speaker this Sunday. Many students are not happy the president will be speaking. Students have concerns about the Middle East, and others are concerned Morehouse is being seen as a political football.
Juma Sei / WABE
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WABE
Morehouse College is set to host President Biden as its commencement speaker this Sunday. Many students are not happy the president will be speaking. Students have concerns about the Middle East, and others are concerned Morehouse is being seen as a political football.

The students are frustrated.

"I think it's kind of insulting that our star alumnus is Dr. [Martin Luther] King, but Biden has been on a tirade in the Middle East," said DeAngelo Fletcher. "Bringing him here — especially during an election year... to get the young Black vote especially, it's kind of insulting."

Fletcher is one of many Morehouse men who feel this way.

Some are protesting the president

It's not just current students who have expressed their concerns over the president's visit.

Hundreds of alumni from the Atlanta HBCU signed a letter, calling on the administration to rescind its invitation to President Biden because of his support of Israel in the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

The Biden administration says that they share the goal of a lasting peace in the Middle East. In recent weeks, Biden has called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps so that an "immediate ceasefire" can be put in place and more aid distributed in the region.

Yet underscoring that the civilian death toll is in the thousands, the alumni letter states that inviting President Biden is "a moral disaster and an embarrassment to the college."

Similar sentiments have inspired protests at colleges across the country. But these demonstrations haven't been as prominent on historically Black campuses.

That is why protesting Biden at Morehouse's graduation is such a big opportunity, said DeAngelo Fletcher.

The all-male college is one of the most prestigious HBCUs.

But Fletcher does not know if he would protest Biden himself. He's the youngest of seven and — like his two friends — wants to focus on his family at graduation.

"But if someone were to approach me and to ask [me] to protest in a way which I felt was tasteful, I would do it," he said.

Students are divided over the issue

According to Justin Darden — a senior with Morehouse's student newspaper, the Maroon Tiger — almost the entire Morehouse senior class is caught in this same limbo.

"When they first announced that Biden was coming, I think the whole daggone senior group chat basically blew up," he said.

The seniors were debating how best to express their frustration with Biden's military support for Israel.

Darden said there was "no excitement around Biden coming." But he's noticed a rift between those who want to protest and those who don't.

"Students are not blind," he said. "It's a social media world, so everybody sees what's going on in Gaza."

He said about half of his peers backed an active protest, while the other half did not.

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the prominent leader of Morehouse College. He was the school's sixth president and spent nearly three decades there. He was a great influencer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who would become prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
Juma Sei / WABE
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WABE
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the prominent leader of Morehouse College. He was the school's sixth president and spent nearly three decades there. He was a great influencer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who would become prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement.

"A lot of us just want our families to see us walk," he said. "We never had the opportunity to. I think that's really what it is."

This wouldn't be the first time students at Atlanta's Black colleges have protested the conflict in Gaza. Darden said he's seen a lot of digital protests and some demonstrations on campus.

The Maroon Tiger reported that last fall, students across the Atlanta University Center — made up of Morehouse, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morris Brown College — hosted events in support of Palestinians and demanded their school administrations take stances against the war in Gaza.

Anwar Karim is an organizer involved in some of that planning. But after participating in a student encampment at Emory University that was forcibly cleared by law enforcement, he's cautious.

"I can tell you from being there, that there were a lot more melanated folk who got arrested and got targeted and got harassed than white people," he said. "So we're taking all of that into consideration as an HBCU."

But he sees the commencement as an opportunity to send a message.

"So those of us who are standing on the right side of history in this Morehouse and AUC family... we have morals and we have humanity," he continued. "This President that [the administration is] bringing to our school does not reflect how we feel."

Morehouse is a strategic choice for Biden

Sunday's commencement is also an opportunity for Biden to send a message to Black voters ahead of the November election.

The Black vote in South Carolina was instrumental in his victory on Super Tuesday in 2020, starting a wave of momentum that propelled him through November. In Georgia — a swing state — Biden's looking to spark the same kind of support amongst what has been the Democrats most reliable voting bloc.

"So it's not surprising at all that he would do this, it's also not surprising that he would target Morehouse because of concerns that his support is fading, particularly amongst Black men," said Andra Gillespie, an Emory political scientist.

Presidents and first ladies have long used HBCU commencements to convey an agenda, she said, and that tracks back as far as the 1960s. More recently, Biden is following in the footsteps of former President Barack Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama, who expanded this type of outreach.

Last year, Biden gave the commencement address at Howard, and prior to that, South Carolina State University.

"It's certainly appropriate to think that, like, there was some intentionality in terms of choosing this particular audience for a political reason," she said. "But Biden still has an opportunity to win people over by giving a really heartfelt and impassioned speech."

Looking ahead to the address

Morehouse President David Thomas is insistent that Biden speaks.

"This is one of those moments that Morehouse is called to," he said.

Morehouse extended a formal invitation to the White House in September, before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel. But as the war intensified — and calls for Thomas to rescind the invitation grew — he said he never reconsidered his decision.

He said Morehouse has a duty not to cancel or alter commencement, as other schools have done. In his words, that would make Morehouse a "plain, vanilla" institution.

His administration has a plan in place for protests.

A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse's most famous graduate, stands on campus in front of the chapel.
Juma Sei / WABE
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WABE
A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse's most famous graduate, stands on campus in front of the chapel.

"We have made clear to our students, you will not be sanctioned for silent, non-disruptive protests," he said.

"If Morehouse cannot hold those tensions that threaten to divide our country, then no place on the planet can hold those tensions."

Steve Benjamin, who leads the White House Office of Public Engagement, visited the campus to meet with some students and faculty earlier this week.

He says the president's visit is meant to highlight the accomplishments of Morehouse students.

"The goal will be to make sure that we use this as an opportunity to continue to elevate the amazing work that's been done at Morehouse over the last century and a half."

Speaking at a press briefing at the White House Thursday, Benjamin also said President Biden respects people's right to protest and he "makes it a point to lean in when there are protesters in the very same space."

There is a camp of students who feel the same as Thomas about graduation.

"Joe Biden [has] done things that might have been seen as controversial in his past," said Ronald David, a sophomore. "But still, it's important for you to have those people that you might not necessarily agree with."

He says if it were his graduation, he'd rather have someone Black — echoing a widespread sentiment on campus. But David adds that Biden might learn something from what folks call the "Morehouse mystique."

He said Biden could benefit from spending more time in Black spaces.

"Just because we don't necessarily resonate or agree with Joe Biden or think that he's the best speaker, it's important not to shun him or say that he isn't the best speaker or shouldn't be speaking and, instead, welcome that unity."

Copyright 2024 WABE 90.1

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Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.
Jasmine Robinson