Biden’s upcoming graduation speech roils Morehouse College, a center of Black politics and culture – Daily Democrat

By BILL BARROW and MATT BROWN (Associated Press)

ATLANTA (AP) — When he gives the commencement address at Morehouse College, President Joe Biden will have his most direct engagement with college students since the start of the Israel-Hamas war at a center of Black politics and culture.

Morehouse is located in Atlanta, the largest city in the swing state of Georgia, which Biden flipped from former President Donald Trump four years ago. Biden’s speech Sunday will come as he tries to make inroads with a key and symbolic constituency — young Black men — and repair the diverse coalition that elected him to the White House.

The announcement of the speech last month triggered peaceful protests and calls for the university administration to cancel over Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. Some students at Morehouse and other historically Black campuses in Atlanta say they vociferously oppose Biden and the decision to have him speak, mirroring the tension Biden faces in many communities of color and with young voters nationally.

Morehouse President David Thomas said in an interview that the emotions around the speech made it all the more important that Biden speak.

“In many ways, these are the moments Morehouse was born for,” he said. “We need someplace in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us. If Morehouse can’t hold those tensions, then no place can.”

The speech comes at a critical moment for Biden in his general election rematch against Trump. Biden is lagging in support among both Black voters and people under 30, groups that were key to his narrow 2020 victories in several battleground states, including Georgia.

Fifty-five percent of Black adults approved of the way Biden is handling his job as president, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in March, a figure far below earlier in his presidency. Overall, 32% of 18- to 29-year-olds approved in the same poll.

“This is a global catastrophe in Gaza, and Joe Biden coming to pander for our votes is political blackface,” said Morehouse sophomore Anwar Karim, who urged Thomas and school trustees to rescind Biden’s invitation.

Recent scenes on American campuses reflect objections among many young voters about Israel’s assaults in Gaza. Biden has backed Israel since Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took hundreds of hostages on Oct. 7. That includes weapons shipments to the longstanding U.S. ally, even as Biden advocates for a cease-fire, criticizes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactics and the civilian death toll in Gaza surpasses 35,000 people, many of them women and children.

Many younger Black people have identified with the Palestinian cause and have at times drawn parallels between Israeli rule of the Palestinian territories and South Africa’s now-defunct apartheid system and abolished Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Israel rejects claims that its system of laws for Palestinians constitutes apartheid.

“I think that the president will do himself good if he does not duck that, especially when you think about the audience that he will be speaking to directly and to the nation,” Thomas said.

Sunday’s speech will culminate a four-day span during which Biden will concentrate on reaching Black communities. On Thursday, the White House is hosting plaintiffs from the Brown v. Board of Education case that barred legal segregation of America’s public schools. The following day, Biden will address an NAACP gathering commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landmark decision.

Former U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a longtime Biden ally who helped broker his speech at Morehouse, said he understood students’ concerns but emphasized that Biden has pressured Netanyahu and supports a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump, meanwhile, has effectively abandoned that long-held U.S. position and said Israel should “finish the problem” in Gaza.

“That’s nowhere in the conversation,” Richmond said.

The debate over Biden’s speech at Morehouse reflected a fundamental tension of historically Black colleges and universities, which are both dedicated to social justice and Black advancement and run by administrators who are committed to keeping order.

“We look like a very conservative institution” sometimes, Thomas said. “On one hand, the institution has to be the stable object where we are today in the world.”

But, he added, the university’s long-term purpose is to “support our students in going out to create a better world.”

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