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Morehouse College prepares for Biden’s speech

When he delivers the address at Morehouse College, President Biden will have his most direct engagement with students since the turn of the century. Israel-Hamas war in a center of black politics and culture.

Morehouse is based in Atlanta, the largest city in the swing state of Georgia, which Biden took over from then-President Donald Trump four years ago. Biden’s speech on sunday will come as the The Democrat is trying to make inroads with an important and symbolic constituency – young black men – and restoring the diverse coalition that elected him to the White House.

The announcement of the speech last month sparked peaceful protests and calls for the college administration to halt Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. Some students at Morehouse and other historically black campuses in Atlanta say they are vocally opposing Mr. Biden and the decision to allow him to speak, a reflection of the tension Biden faces in many communities of color and with young voters nationally .

Fences began going up around the campus on Thursday as concerns grew about possible protests.

Morehouse President David Thomas warned earlier this week that he would halt graduation ceremonies if demonstrations broke out.

“If my choice is to have 20 people arrested on national television on the Morehouse campus and zip-tied away during our commencement before we get to that point, I would wrap up the ceremony,” Thomas told NPR.

For weeks, some students and faculty have challenged leaders at the historically black college to withdraw Mr. Biden’s invitation following his administration’s response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

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“We believe that all of his decisions do not reflect the moral compass of ourselves as students of this institution, and largely of the Black American population,” Morehouse sophomore Anwar Karim told CBS News.

Last week, the White House sent senior Biden adviser Stephen Benjamin to meet with students on campus.

“I think as long as they are peaceful protests that don’t disrupt the great moment that is for each of those graduates there today, we will all consider this a success,” Benjamin said during a White House briefing.

Fabin Nwaduba, an engineering graduate, told CBS News: “This is one of the happiest days of my life. If they (protesters) come along and mess up, I will get hurt.”

Thomas said in an interview with The Associated Press that the emotions surrounding the speech made it all the more important that Mr. Biden spoke.

“In many ways, these are the moments Morehouse was born for,” he said. “We need a place in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us. If Morehouse can’t hold those tensions, no place can.”

The president’s visit comes at a critical time in the battleground state. While Mr. Biden flipped Georgia in 2020, a recent New York Times/Siena poll showed that if the election were held today he would lose to Trump by 10 points as both candidates seek to shore up support among Black voters .

Sunday’s speech will culminate a four-day period in which Mr Biden will focus on reaching Black communities. Thursday, Mr. Biden had a private meeting with the plaintiffs from the Brown v. Board of Education case that banned the legal segregation of American public schools. The next day, Mr. Biden will address an NAACP meeting commemorating the 70th anniversary of the historic decision.

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Many younger black people have identified with the Palestinian cause, sometimes drawing parallels between Israeli rule over the Palestinian territories and South Africa’s now-defunct apartheid system and abolishing Jim Crow laws in the US. Israel rejects claims that its system of laws for Palestinians constitutes apartheid.

“I think the president will do himself a good job if he doesn’t hide that, especially when you think about the audience he’ll be speaking to directly and to the nation,” Thomas told the AP.

The backlash at Morehouse began even before Thomas publicly announced that Mr. Biden was coming. The faculty sent managers a letter of concern, which prompted an online town hall. Alumni gathered hundreds of signatures urging Thomas to withdraw Mr. Biden’s invitation. The petition called the invitation inconsistent with the pacifism that Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse alumnus, expressed in opposing the Vietnam War.

Some students note that leaders at Morehouse and other HBCUs did not always support King and other civil rights activists who are revered today. For example, Morehouse expelled actor Samuel L. Jackson in 1969 after he and other student Morehouse trustees, including King’s father, were detained in a campus building as part of demanding curriculum changes and the appointment of more black trustees.

Students organized two recent protests at the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically black institutions in Atlanta that includes Morehouse.

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“Our institution supports genocide, and we turn a blind eye,” said Nyla Broddie, a student at Spelman College, which is part of the AUC. Brodie argued that Mr. Biden’s Israel policy should be seen in the broader context of U.S. foreign policy and domestic police violence against Black Americans.

Thomas told the AP that he is “very positive about graduation” and that “not one” Morehouse senior — there are about 500 at the all-male private school — has opted out of participating.

“That’s not to say that the feelings about what’s happening in Gaza don’t resonate with people in our community,” Thomas said.

Thomas met privately with students, as did several administrators. The Morehouse Alumni Association hosted a student town hall, featuring at least one veteran of the Atlanta Student Movement, a civil rights-era organization.

But there was a consistent message: withdrawing the invitation to the President of the United States was not an option. When students asked about endowment investments in Israel and U.S. defense companies, they said they were told the relevant amounts are negligible, a few hundred thousand dollars in mutual funds.

HBCUs have not seen the crackdown on law enforcement protests like HBCU’s Columbia University in New York City and the University of California, Los Angeles. However, Morehouse and the AUC have seen peaceful demonstrations, petitions and private meetings among stakeholders on campus. Xavier University, a historically black university in Louisiana, withdrew its invitation to U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s commencement, citing a desire among students “to enjoy a commencement ceremony without disruptions.”

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