At Morehouse, Biden says dissent should be heard because democracy is ‘still the way’

By Stephen Fowler and Jeongyoon Han
President Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. AP

President Joe Biden told Morehouse College’s graduating class of 2024 that he’s committed to serving Black voters while defending freedom and democracy in the face of “extremist forces” that he says threaten the soul of the nation.

With just six months until the general election, the speech, which was filled with religious themes of struggle and resilience, also served as a continuation of Biden’s warning to his supporters of what he thinks the country would look like if Donald Trump is elected again.

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“They don’t see you in the future of America, but they’re wrong,” he said. “To me, we make history, not erase it. We know Black history is American history.”

The president’s commencement address at Morehouse, a historically Black school in Atlanta, also comes as polling shows potentially lower support for his reelection efforts among Black voters and young voters, and as campus protests over conflict in Gaza have disrupted graduations around the country.

Biden said he understood angst over the direction of the country, acknowledged “dissent about America’s role in the world” and said that those who have different views should have their voices heard in the name of democracy.

“That’s my commitment to you,” he said. “To show you: democracy, democracy democracy — it’s still the way.”

His speech is also one of many events on his recent trip aimed at speaking to Black voters, following events with plaintiffs in the historic Brown v. Board Supreme Court case, meetings with Black Greek Letter Organizations, often known as the Divine Nine, and before he headlines an NAACP dinner in Detroit, Mich.

For weeks, several college and university campuses around the country have been roiled with student protests and encampments expressing opposition against Biden and U.S. policies and involvement around conflict in Gaza.

Morehouse has seen student demonstrations, but not occupation of campus spaces or clashes with law enforcement. Outside of the ceremony, a small number of protestors gathered while the commencement itself did not see any major disruptions.

Last week, Morehouse College President David Thomas said he would rather halt proceedings than have students escorted away for protesting.

“If my choice is 20 people being arrested on national TV on the Morehouse campus, taken away in zip ties during our commencement, before we would reach that point, I would conclude the ceremony,” he said on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Those concerns did not come to pass. Apart from the heightened security and increased media presence, Biden’s speech was met with a similar response to a typical college graduation ceremony.

More than 400 graduating students walked across the stage Sunday, and during Biden’s speech a handful of students, some wearing keffiyehs, turned their chairs around to face away from the president.

After the ceremony, Morehouse issued a statement praising the graduating class and their intentionally muted response to Biden.

“It is fitting that a moment of organized, peaceful activism would occur on our campus while the world is watching to continue a critical conversation,” the statement reads. “We are proud of the resilient class of 2024’s unity in silent protest, showing their intentionality in strategy, communication, and coordination as a 414-person unit.”

DeAngelo Fletcher, Morehouse College’s valedictorian, closed his address to his classmates by addressing global conflict, particularly the Israel-Hamas war.

“For the first time in our lives, we’ve heard the global community sing one harmonious song that transcends language and culture,” he said. “It is my sense as a Morehouse Man, nay – as a human being – to call for an immediate and a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.”

Biden’s speech at Morehouse comes with intense scrutiny as many presidential horse race polls show the president lagging with young voters, Black voters and other nonwhite groups that helped propel him to a narrow victory against Donald Trump in 2020.

While some students, faculty and alumni expressed opposition to Biden’s selection as the commencement speaker, reaction on campus during the graduation ceremony was largely positive.

Dr. Tiffany Johnson, a 50-year-old who came to the campus green at 4:30 a.m. to see her son graduate, was also excited to see Biden.

“He is the leader of the free world, the most important job in the world, and for him to come to speak to [Morehouse] graduates, to inspire them, is phenomenal,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Black voters who might not support Biden are part of a “bandwagon” that do not understand what he has done for the community, and said his speech would be an ideal opportunity to share his accomplishments.

In the speech, Biden touted a track record that he says makes key investments in Black communities, including a record $16 billion funding package towards historically Black colleges and universities, protecting voting rights, and creating economic policies that strengthens Black businesses.