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News / Nation & World

Biden tells Morehouse graduates that he hears their voices of protest over the war in Gaza

'I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well'

By Darlene Superville, Matt Brown and Bill Barrow, Associated Press
Published: May 19, 2024, 1:53pm
3 Photos
President Joe Biden, left, stands with valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta.
President Joe Biden, left, stands with valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Photo Gallery

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden on Sunday told Morehouse College graduates during his commencement speech that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking.

“I support peaceful, nonviolent protest,” he told students at the all-male, historically Black college, some who wore keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. “Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.”

The president said there was a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That’s why I’ve called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting” and bring home the hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The comments, toward the end of his address that also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it, were the most direct recognition to U.S. students about the campus protests that have swept across the country.

“It’s one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world,” Biden told the graduates. “There’s nothing easy about it. I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family. But most of all I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.”

The speech — and one planned later Sunday in Detroit — is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

Biden spent much of his address focused on the problems at home. He condemned Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants and noting that the class of 2024 started college in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder. Biden said it was natural for them, and others, to wonder whether the democracy “you hear about actually works for you.”

“If Black men are being killed in the street, what is democracy?” he asked. “The trail of broken promises that still leave Black communities behind. What is democracy? If you have to be 10 times better than anyone else to get a fair shot.”

Protests over the war have roiled America’s campuses. Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony. At Morehouse, the announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the faculty and those who oppose the president’s handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning administrators for inviting Biden, and they solicited signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter claimed that Biden’s approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse’s most famous graduate.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials in the territory.

But in the end, there were no major disruptions at the event, and applause for his remarks was muted. At least seven graduates and a faculty member sat with their backs turned during Biden’s address, and another student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. Protesters near the ceremony carried signs that said “Free Palestine,” “Save the Children” and “Ceasefire Now” as police on bikes kept watch.

On the stage behind the president as he spoke, academics unfurled a Congolese flag. The African country has been mired in a civil war, and many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict as well as American help in ending the violence.

The class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said at the close of his speech that it was his duty to speak on the war in Gaza and that it was important to recognize that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered.

“From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children, while calling for the release of all hostages he said. “It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.”

Biden stood and shook his hand after Fletcher finished.

Kingsley John, a graduating senior, said “the temperature on campus was expected given we had the president of the United States come and speak.” John said he stood “in solidarity” with his classmate and that Biden “seemed to be reflective and open to hear the feedback.”

The college also awarded Biden an honorary degree. After he accepted the honor, Biden joked: “I’m not going home,” as chants of “four more years” broke out in the audience before he left the stage. He was heading to Detroit to speak at an NAACP dinner.

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November’s expected rematch between Biden and Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

In Detroit, Biden planned to visit a Black-owned small business before giving the keynote address at the NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an “uncommitted” effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state’s Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden’s visit were planned in Dearborn. Another protest rally was expected the dinner venue.

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