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Biden reaches out to Morehouse grads on Gaza to muted applause

                                resident Joe Biden addresses Morehouse College graduates during a commencement ceremony in Atlanta, Ga., today.
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resident Joe Biden addresses Morehouse College graduates during a commencement ceremony in Atlanta, Ga., today.

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Biden delivers commencement address to Morehouse graduates

ATLANTA>> President Joe Biden urged Morehouse College graduates not to give up on democracy in a somber commencement address on Sunday, acknowledging their anger over the war in Gaza while warning about risk to American freedoms.

The speech, which would typically be a low-profile event, drew scrutiny as college campuses nationwide erupted in sometimes-violent protests over Biden’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas following the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack. But the campus of the historically Black men’s college remained calm, with only small and silent shows of protest.

Biden said he shared graduates’ concerns over the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and was continuing to push for a deal to pause the conflict in exchange for the release of hostages. He said leadership can be “hard and lonely” and said frustration and anger about the conflict permeated his own family.

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. I know it angers and frustrates many of you,” he told the crowd.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that’s why I’ve called for an immediate ceasefire,” Biden said to applause.

A generational divide was apparent at the decorous commencement, as older alumni at times stood and cheered the president while current graduates sat in silence or offered polite applause.

Some students wore keffiyehs – the black-and-white head scarf that has become an emblem of solidarity with the Palestinian cause – around their gowns. A handful of students turned their backs to Biden in silent protest. Morehouse’s valedictorian also called for a permanent and immediate ceasefire, garnering Biden’s applause.

Biden used the address, an election-year platform ahead of the Nov. 5 contest against Republican candidate Donald Trump, to highlight his support for Black Americans and his push against racism and division that he says threatens the nation’s foundation.

“It’s natural to wonder: Does the democracy you hear about actually work for you?” he said. Even so, he added, Americans must continue “to call out the poison of white supremacy, root out systemic racism. Democracy is still the way.”

Biden is selling his vision to jaded voters who back his policies but are not sold on the 81-year-old candidate himself, including younger Black men, as he faces a rematch against former president Trump, who has used increasingly authoritarian language and already stoked doubts about the election’s legitimacy.

Biden challenged graduates to build on their historic education to lead and fight for freedom at home. Morehouse was founded in 1867 to educate Black people newly liberated from slavery. Alumni include the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Without citing Trump by name, Biden invoked the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by Trump supporters, some carrying Civil War-era Confederate flags, as well as attacks on Black election workers, attempts to restrict voting and extremists’ rhetoric toward immigrants.

Later on Sunday while speaking at the Detroit NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in the competitive state of Michigan, Biden mentioned Trump when he spoke about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“What do you think he would have done on January 6 if Black Americans had stormed the Capitol? No I’m serious. What do you think? I can only imagine,” Biden said.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month showed Biden and Trump nearly tied for voters under 40, a group Biden carried by double-digit percentage points in 2020. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll last month found just 62% of Black voters say they are absolutely certain to vote, down from 74% roughly four years ago. Nine in 10 Black voters supported Biden in 2020, surveys found.

Sunday’s speech comes amid of a flurry of Biden actions and engagements focused on African American issues.

Biden noted the billions in funding his administration has granted historically Black colleges and universities, praising them as tools of enhanced economic mobility.

Trump has vowed to fight an “anti-white feeling” in the U.S. while also pitching himself to Black voters.

“There has been no president since Abraham Lincoln that’s done more for the Black individual in this country than Donald J. Trump,” he said at an event on Saturday, citing the Civil War-era president who abolished slavery.

It was not the first time that Trump compared himself to Lincoln. In the second debate between Trump and Biden in 2020, Trump said, “With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception … nobody’s done what I’ve done” for Black Americans.


Morehouse sits on a leafy campus near downtown Atlanta, the biggest city in Georgia, one of the most competitive battleground states in the 2024 race. In 2020, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Many Black men consulted in Democratic focus groups report being underwhelmed by their economic prospects and progress on issues from student loans to criminal justice reform after delivering the Democratic party control of the two houses of Congress and the White House in 2020. Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2022 midterm elections.

Some Black students have drawn parallels between the experience of stateless Palestinians, apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South, which motivated earlier generations of protest. Israeli and U.S. officials reject those comparisons.

But Morehouse and other historically Black colleges and universities have not been as convulsed by protests like those at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. Many of Biden’s top aides regard the protests as not reflective of the majority view of voters.

In a statement after the ceremony, Morehouse said peaceful protests were part of its social justice tradition.

Calvin Bell III said fellow graduates demonstrated a range of reactions and that he periodically put his own head down when he disagreed with some of the president’s statements.

“I appreciated at least that he said that he wants a ceasefire,” Bell told Reuters. “The speech missed at times. … However, I’m glad that we still got to listen because this has major implications come November.”

Biden, who speaks next week to graduates at the United States Military Academy, has maintained longstanding U.S. arms support for Israel despite the mounting death toll of its campaign in Gaza. But he has threatened to cut off aid if Israel pursues its offensive in Rafah, where many civilians are taking refuge.

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