Biden faces silent protests at Morehouse commencement

Written by on May 19, 2024

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(ATLANTA) — President Joe Biden was met with silent protests as he delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, after some students and faculty members voiced strong opposition to his visit over the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

In his speech before the president’s address, valedictorian DeAngelo “DJ” Fletcher called for an “immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza.”

When Biden spoke, he directly addressed the issue, saying, “What’s happening in Gaza and Israel is heartbreaking.”

“We can’t stop wars that break out and break our hearts,” Biden said. “I want to say this very clearly: I support peaceful, nonviolent protests. Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.”

Later, he revealed that even his own family is frustrated by failed attempts to create lasting peace in the region.

“What after? What after Hamas? What happens then? What happens in Gaza? What rights do the Palestinian people have? I am working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution. The only solution: for two people to live in peace, security and dignity,” Biden said. “It is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it. I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family.”

As the graduates filed in for the ceremony Sunday, some were noticeably wearing Palestinian flags and keffiyehs, a headdress typically worn by men in the Middle East, draped around their shoulders.

While there were no disruptive protests, students and faculty showed their opposition in other ways. A handful of graduates turned their chairs when Biden spoke. One faculty member stood with her back turned away from the president with her right fist raised.

Notably, there was an age divide in support among Morehouse graduates: The alumni sitting to the left gave standing ovations during and after Biden’s speech, while the 2024 graduating class mainly remained seated throughout.

While Biden spoke, faculty held up the Democratic Republic of Congo’s flag prominently behind him. The country is involved in its own humanitarian crisis stemming from unprecedented violence in the country.

Morehouse’s valedictorian delivered remarks before Biden, saying that in honor of the school’s legacy, he felt it was right to call for a cease-fire.

“It is only right for the class of 2024 to utilize any platform provided to stand in solidarity with peace and justice,” Fletcher said. “The Israel-Gaza conflict has plagued the people of its region for generations.”

“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,” Fletcher said. “Hear the people of this world sing the song of righteous justice.”

Biden looked pensive and stoic as he was seated behind Fletcher and clapped after the valedictorian called for an immediate and permanent cease-fire.

Biden later noted he’s also called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That’s why I’ve called for an immediate cease-fire. An immediate cease-fire, stop the fighting. Bring the hostages back,” Biden said. “I’ve been working on a deal as we speak. Working around the clock to … get more aid into Gaza, rebuild Gaza.”

The Rev. Hardy Spurgeon Bennings III, who offered a prayer at the start of the ceremony, also addressed the war in Gaza and conflicts in other regions, saying the young men graduating should hold those in power accountable and call for protecting human life everywhere.

“God, make this class those men with a moral conscience that will cause this country to be mindful of its moral duty,” he said, later adding: “Make these men men who will hold our communities and our country accountable for valuing human life.”

“Whether it is a baby in a mother’s womb, or whether it is a baby who a mother expects to come home in the afternoon, whether it’s a child in an underprivileged school or a charter school, whether they live in Israel or Palestine, Ukraine or Russia, the Congo or Haiti, God, give us men who will value life and call us to accountability,” the reverend said.

Biden’s speech came during an election year in a key swing state in front of a key voting bloc — Morehouse is one of the country’s most famous historically Black colleges — and after much speculation over how he would be received.

Polling shows Biden faces headwinds to win over some young and Black voters who voted for him in 2020, and protests erupted in recent months on college campuses across the United States over the president’s handling of the war in Gaza. Morehouse ultimately decided not to rescind Biden’s invitation to speak at its commencement, and a vote was held to confirm he would be granted an honorary doctorate.

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