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Biden to deliver Morehouse graduation speech amid concerns from faculty, students

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday morning, his most direct engagement with students since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas and a key opportunity for him to engage with a group of voters who, according to the data, is softening his attitude: young black men.

A White House source familiar with planning Biden’s opening speech told NBC News that the president plans to use his remarks to “focus on students” and “address their concerns.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed that sentiment Friday, telling reporters that Biden views his speech as “an opportunity to stand up and deliver an important message to our future leaders.” .

“He has been working on these remarks for several days, I can assure you, with his senior advisors. He takes this incredibly seriously,” Jean-Pierre said. “We will have to respond to the moment. And I think the president will tell you directly how he sees the future of this country, as well as the community that he represents.

Biden previewed the tone of his remarks during a speech Thursday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Morehouse was founded after our nation’s Civil War to help prepare black Americans who were formerly enslaved to enter the ministry, obtain an education, and transition them from slavery to freedom,” a Biden said before announcing $16 billion in new investments for historically black colleges and universities. . “The founders of Morehouse understood something fundamental. Education is linked to freedom. Because to be free is to have something that no one can ever take away from you.

But Biden’s speech at Morehouse will come against a backdrop of protests on college campuses across the country over his handling of the war in Gaza, with many students and faculty expressing opposition to the White House’s continued financial and military support for Israel . Some at Morehouse hope Biden will directly address these concerns during his opening speech.

“I hope we don’t get boilerplate language. Hopefully we’ll get something we’ve never heard before. I hope his ethical and moral conscience trumps all politics,” Morehouse professor Stephane Dunn said at a protest Friday.

Morehouse has also organized pro-Palestinian protests on campus, although the HBCU has not seen the same scale or escalation of protests as some larger universities.

The school’s decision to host Biden as its commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate almost immediately sparked protests among faculty and students, some continuing in the days leading up to the commencement ceremony.

“It’s a great distraction on a day celebrating the Class of 2024 following Covid-19, but it’s also an opportunity for students to make their voices heard at a time of increasing war and genocide in the Middle East. -Orient,” Morehouse senior Calvin said. Bell said in reaction to Biden’s visit.

“As students, faculty and alumni who are on the right side of history, we do not stand with Biden,” said another Morehouse student, sophomore Anwar Karim. “We do not associate with all the clear and fervent support he has given to a genocidal campaign by the Israelis for over 200 days. »

More recently, Morehouse faculty were divided over the decision to award Biden an honorary doctorate during the ceremony. A letter distributed among staff members protesting the decision garnered more than two dozen signatures, and the vote to award the degree passed 50 to 38, with about 12 faculty members abstaining. .

Divisions on campus have led to at least three meetings between Morehouse President David Thomas and students and faculty. At these meetings, Thomas recognized the Morehouse community’s right to protest Biden, but encouraged, even demanded, that such protests not be disruptive.

Before the start, he told CNN that while he would not ask police to intervene if there were protests during Biden’s remarks, he would immediately end the start.

“I have also made the decision that we will not ask the police to remove individuals wearing zip ties either. If I have a choice, I will stop the ceremonies on site if we get to that position,” Thomas said.

Even Morehouse’s most vocal student protesters acknowledged that any demonstrations during the opening ceremony were unlikely to be disruptive, in part because of the volatility a police response would be likely to induce.

“I think whatever happens on Sunday from the people and those who want to see change, it will be peaceful,” Karim said. “I don’t see this breaking out like it has on some other campuses, because we at HBCUs here are also aware of how interactions with police often play out.”

The White House deployed its allies to Morehouse, both formally and informally, to ease concerns and reduce tensions related to Biden’s visit.

Steve Benjamin, who directs the White House Office of Public Engagement, met this month with a small group of Morehouse students and faculty following a push from the school’s leadership for “direct engagement » from the White House.

During the meeting, some students expressed concerns that Biden would eclipse their degree, while others implored Benjamin to ensure that Biden’s speech did not double as a campaign speech – frustrated by the idea of ​​the keynote speech being a way for Biden to build support among blacks. voters.

This sentiment was shared by other Morehouse students who were critical of Biden’s visit.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he only accepted the invitation after Trump was already in the West End (of Atlanta), trying to make progress and failing to do so with our students here,” Morehouse student Malik Poole said during a protest on campus. before Biden’s visit. “And it comes at a time when voters of color are fleeing Biden at a record rate. »

But Biden’s visit to Morehouse this week will come as part of a concerted effort by his administration and campaign to sharpen his message to black voters.

On Thursday, Biden met with plaintiffs and their family members in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The next day, he met with leaders of the Divine Nine, a group of historically black sororities and fraternities, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, herself a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. During his trip to Georgia, Biden attended an event Saturday focused on engaging Black voters. And after his opening remarks, Biden will close the weekend by delivering the keynote address at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in Detroit, where he plans to tout his administration’s accomplishments for Black Americans.

As data suggests Black voters — particularly younger Black voters — are lashing out against Biden, some at Morehouse recognize Biden’s “opportunity” to make his case to members of that voting bloc during his speech .

“If you want these students to vote for you in the fall, you have to give them something that shows you hear them,” Dunn said. “That you’re trying to do something we haven’t heard of.” This is the opportunity.

News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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