HomePoliticsA divided Morehouse College is preparing for Biden's arrival

A divided Morehouse College is preparing for Biden’s arrival

Deep divisions and concerns on the campus of Morehouse College have presented President Joe Biden with a delicate balancing act this weekend as he prepares to deliver the commencement address at the historically black, all-male college.

There have been mixed reactions within the Morehouse community to Biden’s presence on campus, as the school braces for enhanced security measures and possible pro-Palestinian protests amid the president’s strong support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas. The White House has been working for weeks to allay any concerns, hoping the speech will give Biden a chance to better connect with young black men, a group that has increasingly distanced itself from the president, according to recent polls.

“There’s just an overwhelming sense of confusion and kind of disarray,” said Colin Royal, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Maroon Tiger and a junior at Morehouse, when asked about the atmosphere on campus. “Some think it’s a great opportunity to potentially bring a lot of much-needed attention to Morehouse, and some think the opposite.”

The president’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza has roiled college campuses across the country, presenting Biden with a unique circumstance for a Democratic politician: avoiding the progressive college voters who have traditionally been very friendly and enthusiastic about supporting of the party. Instead, Biden has effectively stopped visiting colleges and universities since a January speech in which he was interrupted several times by activists calling for a ceasefire.

While Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have made giving speeches at historically black colleges and universities a feature of their spring programs, the Morehouse speech is under the microscope as a potential litmus test for the president’s strength with young voters of color in the autumn.

Aware of the difficult task ahead, Biden and his advisers have spent weeks preparing for the speech in the battleground of Georgia. The president’s advisers say he plans to keep the focus on the graduates even as the prospect of protests over Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza hangs over the event.

Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus and co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, said he also expects Biden to talk about “overcoming adversity” and the importance of giving back to the community during his keynote address.

CNN spoke to 10 students and four faculty members at Morehouse College who had differing opinions about Biden speaking at their school.

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A divided campus

Aylon Gipson, a graduating senior and member of the Morehouse College Democrats who met with the Biden administration, said he was reassured that Biden would make comments “authentic to Morehouse College” and that the president “has something to say to us that would have an impact. for our lives.”

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However, other students who spoke to CNN expressed deep skepticism about the president’s motives for coming to their school.

Jalen Silas Burch, a 19-year-old college freshman, told CNN he believes the president’s speech is an attempt to pander to black male voters. “I feel like it’s just a tactic to get more and more black voters because I feel like Biden knows he’s lost a lot of support, especially over the last year,” he said.

Some students said they want the president to use the speech to specifically express support for Israel.

“I’m looking forward to Biden coming to campus to hear what his speech really has to say,” said Calvin Bell, 22. “As someone who has felt very strange at this moment in time and history, with the tension in Gaza, I think it’s important that Biden comes with the intention to grapple with the issues at hand, and to also reassure students like me. as our family members, who are part of the black community.”

Morehouse invited Biden to speak at the commencement in September, a month before the war between Israel and Hamas began.

Biden will receive an honorary degree from Morehouse, following a faculty vote earlier this week. The college told CNN in an email that “it is imperative to make clear that the recent decision to meet to vote to award President Biden an honorary degree is not due to current political matters.”

Since the announcement that Biden would speak at the HBCU this spring, several student-led protests have taken place on and off the Morehouse campus. The Atlanta University Center Student Intercommunal Coordinating Committee (AUC SICC) has been instrumental in planning pro-Palestinian protests on and near Morehouse’s campus in recent months. The committee recently released a letter of demands to the Morehouse Board of Trustees.

Among the committee’s demands is an “immediate divestment from Israeli companies and businesses” and that the council “sever all ties with Israel in solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people.”

Michael Henry, a 22-year-old senior who attended a rally on campus, told CNN that many students are frustrated with Biden and also with the university’s senior leadership for allowing the president to speak at the school.

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“Many Morehouse administrators, especially the president (of the college), would like to suggest that the student body is completely divided … that there is no plurality of views. But I can’t name one person off the top of my head who is very excited about Biden coming here,” he told CNN.

Noah Collier, a senior, told CNN that his school should rescind Biden’s invitation because, he says, if the president speaks on his campus this weekend it “demonstrates our institution’s complicity in all the injustices created by Biden’s cabinet and the US government. .”

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas told CNN on Thursday that he did not withdraw Biden’s invitation because “we need a place in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us.”

While Thomas acknowledged that he viewed the president’s reelection efforts as a possible motivator when he invited him to speak, he said it would not be in Biden’s best interest to “give a campaign stump speech.” He called on Biden to discuss what the school stands for, lay out his vision for “a more inclusive economy” and address the war between Israel and Hamas.

The school “will allow silent, non-disruptive protest,” but Thomas said he would stop commencement ceremonies “on the spot” if major disruptions occur that prevent participants’ ability to “participate and enjoy.”

Senior faculty at Morehouse College hope to minimize disruptions during the ceremony by holding several meetings with faculty and students in recent weeks to hear concerns about the president’s upcoming visit. The White House has also gone to campus, sending Steve Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, to meet with members of the Morehouse College community last weekend.

During the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, some faculty and students told Benjamin they did not want Biden to give a campaign speech during his keynote address at the graduation ceremony. Instead, they wanted him to focus on the students’ achievements, according to one participant in the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Benjamin said Thursday that the meeting was an opportunity to “join these young leaders to hear what they wanted to hear on their very special commencement day.”

Laying the foundation for weeks

The president’s advisors have consulted with Morehouse students, faculty and alumni, including Dr. Eddie Glaude, a Morehouse alumnus and Princeton professor of African American Studies, according to a source familiar with the matter.

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Biden’s team is also expected to study Obama’s 2013 Morehouse speech while drafting the speech, a source familiar with the matter said.

Biden and Harris previously spoke at Morehouse College in 2022 as part of a major push for voting rights that saw legislation stalled on Capitol Hill. They have spoken for alternating years at graduation ceremonies at historically black colleges and universities, with Biden delivering commencement speeches at South Carolina State University in late 2021 and at Howard University in 2023. Harris spoke at Tennessee State University’s 2022 commencement exercises.

The White House is preparing for the possibility of protests at Sunday’s event, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Increased security presence

Morehouse College is also taking additional steps to increase security in response to Biden’s upcoming visit following protests on campus.

Senior faculty advisors who helped prepare for this weekend’s graduation ceremony held a meeting with the Secret Service and are monitoring student protests expected to take place this week, according to a source familiar with those conversations.

Student volunteers assisting with the graduation ceremony at Morehouse College will also be required to complete virtual de-escalation training with the Morehouse College Police Department before the graduation ceremony this year, according to an email obtained by CNN.

The de-escalation training is intended to prepare these students to “address challenging situations that may arise” during the ceremony where they could intervene, the email said.

The council has also evacuated academic buildings and student residences located near where the speech was to be delivered for security reasons. This move has forced many students staying on campus after graduation to move to other buildings further away from where the graduation ceremony would take place.

Stephane Dunn, a professor who has taught at the college for more than 16 years, said the general concern among Morehouse College faculty about Biden attending the graduation ceremony is that it will overshadow the main purpose of the event, which is to celebrating the nearly 500 students graduating. .

“The most important conversation going on is that this graduation ceremony is not for President Biden. … Commencement at Morehouse on Sunday will be all about the students. It’s their story. It is their chapter ending and the other chapter beginning,” Dunn said.

CNN’s Kayla Tausche and Victor Blackwell contributed to this report.

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