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Biden world reacts to Morehouse backlash, signals president may address concerns in speech

Biden world reacts to Morehouse backlash, signals president may address concerns in speech
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After some backlash to last week’s announcement that President Joe Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College, officials from within the president’s orbit tell theGrio the president hears those concerns loud and clear, and may even address them in his upcoming speech later this month. 

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“What he has been doing and will continue to do leading up to the speech is listening very closely to all the concerns raised and making sure that he addresses them either in the speech or separate and apart from that,” said Stephen Benjamin, senior adviser to President Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. He added, “The war is obviously a significant issue of discussion … all around the country. Probably most vividly on college campuses right now.” 

Since Morehouse President David A. Thomas announced President Biden as the keynote speaker for the all-male college’s 140th commencement on May 19, a number of students, faculty and alumni expressed opposition as a result of the Biden administration’s policy to support Israel’s military operation in Gaza against Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, resulting in the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians. 

Outraged over the war and Biden’s role in it were expressed in a campus town hall between Morehouse students and President Thomas, as well as a letter circulated amongst Morehouse alumni that called the invitation to the president a “moral disaster and an embarrassment to the college.”

Cedric Richmond, national co-chair of the Biden-Harris campaign and a Morehouse alumnus, told theGrio that he is “proud” of the Morehouse student body for “being engaged” and “caring about human life.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave a Palestinian flag as they call for a ceasefire in Gaza during a protest as part of the “People’s White House Ceasefire Now Iftar” outside the White House in Washington, DC, April 2, 2024. President Joe Biden has downsized the traditional Ramadan event at the White House amid tensions over his support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza, officials said on April 2, 2024. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

“The president is also concerned about civilian casualties, Palestinian people and their safety,” added Richmond, who noted that the president has “criticized” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the ground operation in Gaza and “committed significant resources” to Palestinians in Gaza. 

The former Biden White House senior adviser said the president would “continue his efforts” for “long-lasting peace and a two-state solution” between Israel and Palestine. 

Despite actions by the Biden administration and campaign to lead to a peace solution in the Middle East, some alumni see the president’s visit as a direct conflict with the legacy of Morehouse’s most illuminating alumnus: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“Dr. King was famous not only for his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement but for risking his reputation [and] relationships to speak up against the Vietnam War near the end of his life,” said Edward Mitchell, a Morehouse graduate and national deputy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “That legacy of speaking out against an unjust war is what college kids around the country are living out right now.”

Mitchell, who signed the aforementioned letter circulated amongst Morehouse alumni, said that while he understands why the college would normally welcome the president of the United States to deliver a commencement speech, the timing is “terrible.”

“When I was at Morehouse, there’s no way they would have invited George W. Bush to speak in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or at the height of the Iraq War,” he explained. “So why is it acceptable?”

Mitchell said the Biden administration is “living in an alternate reality if they think that they can speak” at Morehouse and “not face serious blowback from young Black men who overwhelmingly oppose the ongoing genocide in Gaza.” 

He said until Biden stops “enabling an unjust, genocidal war,” Morehouse is “not the place for him to be,” adding, “His presence is really distracting from what should be a celebration focused on students and their parents without the specter of protests or disruptions.”

Though it’s unclear whether students or graduates themselves will protest the president’s visit when he comes to the campus, Mitchell told theGrio, “Students should decide on their own how they want to respond to this and what they feel is appropriate.”

Morehouse College graduates participate in the 2023 139th Morehouse College Commencement Ceremony at Morehouse College on May 21, 2023 in Atlanta. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

He added, “I know students are angry and frustrated and they may decide that speaking out is more important than having a peaceful ceremony, that is totally up to them to decide.”

Controversy aside, Benjamin and Richmond, the two most prominent Black men advising Biden inside the White House and on the campaign trail, say the president chose to participate in Morehouse’s graduation ceremony to honor the HBCU’s rich history of producing Black male leaders. 

“When a president accepts to speak at a school, he is acknowledging the value of the school, the worth of the students, and in Morehouse’s case, the impact and legacy that the school has had on this country’s history,” said Richmond, a former U.S. congressman from New Orleans, Louisiana. 

“Whether it’s by being a school teacher, or an engineer, or lawyer, or a doctor, or going on as the Secretary of Homeland Security like Jeh Johnson. We, at the school, produce people who change communities and change the world.”

When President Biden delivers his remarks on the Morehouse campus in the heart of Atlanta, he will become the second sitting U.S. president to do so. The first was President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief, whom Biden served as his vice president.

“I think that it raises Morehouse’s profile once again,” Richmond said of President Biden’s upcoming visit. 

Though some critics have dismissed the president’s Morehouse commencement speech as a campaign stop to shore up Black voters in a battleground state, Biden officials pushed back against the suggestion. Instead, they argue that the president has an authentic relationship with the campus and an understanding of its legacy. 

A sculpted bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adorns a table for an early preview of the redesigned Oval Office awaiting President Joseph Biden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“He considers Dr. King his personal hero … and has his bust on display with only a handful of others in the Oval Office,” said Benjamin, who also noted that “several” Morehouse grads work in the White House executive office, including in the West Wing. He added, “He considers the connection with Morehouse real.”

Richmond, who recalled talking about Morehouse with Biden during his 2020 campaign, said the Biden-Harris administration holds a “reverence” for Morehouse and the greater Atlanta University Center, which includes Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown. Richmond said that is why the president delivered one of “his most important speeches on civil rights and voting rights” on the campus in 2022 and Vice President Kamala Harris included Morehouse on her “Fight for Our Freedoms” tour last year.

The Biden campaign official said the president sees the commencement speech as an opportunity to remind the 2024 graduates of “all the things that he has been able to accomplish specifically for the Black community,” because “[they] were engaged” in the last presidential election.

“It’s more about making sure that they understand the impact that they have had, that they will have, that we need them to have,” Richmond noted, “and not necessarily in a political context, but in a community, country-type context.”

Benjamin said President Biden’s upcoming speech to the hundreds of Black male graduates will be about centering the students and their families.  

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“When the president comes to speak, it’s meant to be a memory for a lifetime,” he said. “My sense is that he’ll speak to those things that unite us, more so than those things that divide us.”

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