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Biden Set to Address Morehouse Graduates as Campus Tensions Surround His Upcoming Visit

On Sunday, President Joe Biden will attend his first commencement ceremony of the 2024 season at Morehouse College, a gathering that might possibly see him addressing the mounting frustration among students throughout the US toward his administration's stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic...
President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on April 16, 2024.

Biden Set to Address Morehouse Graduates as Campus Tensions Surround His Upcoming Visit

This year's graduation ceremony at Morehouse, a landmark HBCU in Atlanta that boasts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an alum, could be where President Biden faces the most intense scrutiny from young people about his policies regarding the conflict in Gaza.

The news that Biden will be delivering the keynote speech at Morehouse in May unleashed outrage from some faculty members, causing the school provost to organize a discussion in late April to address these concerns. Despite the uproar, Morehouse has insisted it won't revoke Biden's invitation, which was issued back in September before the war started.

In response to the backlash, and anticipating possible protests, the White House sent Stephen Benjamin, head of its public engagement office, to Morehouse to interact with some students.

During a Thursday news conference at the White House, Benjamin mentioned that he and the students had a comprehensive conversation, including the Middle East conflict.

"The words that the president will say are crucial," Benjamin said at the briefing. "I know he feels very strongly about what this means to these young men."

He also added that Biden would likely mix with faculty, staff, and students during his visit, and the president is excited about it.

Biden has mostly avoided addressing massive gatherings of young people on college campuses in recent months. This shift happened after his remarks on abortion rights at George Mason University in Virginia were interrupted multiple times by protesters displeased with his support for Israel in the Gaza war.

Since then, as the Gaza death toll of civilians, humanitarian workers, and journalists has increased, so has the anger.

Around 1,360 student activism events have taken place at colleges across the United States from October 2021 to May 2023, per data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Nearly all these events – 97%—were peaceful, but several instances of property destruction and violence have captured the headlines.

Reaching a boiling point in late April and early May, students seized buildings at Columbia University, police dispersed an encampment at the University of Texas at Austin, and counterprotesters at UCLA staged a lengthy attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment.

These episodes of campus chaos prompted Biden, during a White House speech earlier this month, to call out some campus protesters' actions.

"I understand people have powerful convictions," Biden said at the time. "In America, we respect the right and ensure the right to express that. But this doesn't imply anything goes."

Dissent is "fundamental to democracy," Biden emphasized, but it "must never result in disorder, nor deny the rights of others."

Biden's commencement speech at Morehouse forms part of a series of actions this week designed to both recognize the nation's lingering racial disparities, while simultaneously mentoring its next generation of Black leaders.

On Thursday, Biden met with the plaintiffs from the seminal Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended racial segregation in schools 70 years ago. During their meeting, some relatives urged him to declare May 17 a national holiday for the case's anniversary.

Friday saw Biden deliver remarks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and discuss with members of the Divine Nine, a group of historically Black fraternities and sororities.

Finally, after his address at Morehouse on May 7, Biden plans to travel to Detroit to speak at an NAACP dinner.

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