Biden Commencement Speech Could Be Dicey for Him

He will speak at Morehouse, a decision opposed by many of its Black students
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 18, 2024 5:05 PM CDT
Biden Commencement Speech Could Be Dicey for Him
President Biden will speak at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

When he gives the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, President Biden will have his most direct engagement with college students since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, and it will happen 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 Trump four years ago. Biden's speech 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, per the AP.

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. 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 US.

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The debate over Biden's speech at Morehouse reflects 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."

(More President Biden stories.)

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