A divided Morehouse College braces for Biden’s arrival

Deep divisions and apprehension 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 potential pro-Palestinian protests amid the president’s stalwart support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas. The White House has been working for weeks to quell any concerns, and it hopes the address will give Biden an opportunity to better connect with young Black men, a group that has been increasingly moving away from the president, according to recent polls.

“There’s just an overwhelming sense of confusion and sort of disarray,” said Colin Royal, managing editor of the Maroon Tiger student newspaper and a junior at Morehouse, when asked about the atmosphere on campus. “Some think that it’s a tremendous opportunity to possibly bring a lot of well-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, leaving Biden facing a unique circumstance for a Democratic politician: avoiding the progressive college voters who are traditionally very friendly and enthusiastic about supporting the party. Instead, Biden has basically stopped visiting colleges and universities since a January speech during which he was interrupted several times by activists calling for a ceasefire.

While Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have made giving commencement speeches at historically Black colleges and universities a hallmark of their spring schedules, the Morehouse address is under the microscope as a potential litmus test for the president’s strength with young voters of color in the fall.

Aware of the difficult task at hand, Biden and his advisers have prepared for the speech in battleground Georgia for weeks. The president’s advisers say he’s intent on keeping the focus on the graduates even as the prospect of protests over Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza lingers over the event.

Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus and co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, said he also expects for 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 on Biden speaking at their school.

A divided campus

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

Other students who spoke to CNN, however, expressed deep skepticism of the president’s motives for coming to their school.

Jalen Silas Burch, a 19-year-old freshman, told CNN that he feels the president’s speech is a move to “pander” to Black male voters. “I feel like it’s just a tactic just to get more and more Black voters because I feel like Biden knows that he has been losing a lot of support, especially this past year,” he said.

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

“I’m looking forward to Biden coming on campus in order to hear what his speech truly has to say,” said Calvin Bell, 22, a senior. “As someone who has felt very weird at this portion in time and history, with the tension in Gaza, I think it’s important for Biden to come with the intention of wrestling with the issues at hand, and reassuring students such as myself, as well as our family members, who are a part of the Black community.”

Morehouse extended the invitation to Biden to speak at the commencement in September, a month before the Israel-Hamas war started.

Biden will receive an honorary Morehouse degree, following a faculty vote earlier in the week. The college told CNN in an email that “it is imperative to clarify that the recent decision to convene to vote to award President Biden an honorary degree is not because of current political affairs.”

Since the announcement that Biden would deliver a commencement speech 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 played an instrumental role in planning pro-Palestinian protests on and near Morehouse’s campus throughout the last few 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 corporations” and that the college “sever all ties with Israel in solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people.”

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

“A lot of the administrators at Morehouse, particularly the president (of the college), would like to suggest that the student body is completely split … that there’s no plurality of views. But I can’t name one person off the top of my head who is really excited that Biden is coming here,” he told CNN.

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

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas told CNN on Thursday that he didn’t rescind Biden’s invitation speak because “we need some place in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us.”

While Thomas acknowledged he considered the president’s reelection effort a possible motivator when inviting him to speak, he said it wouldn’t be in Biden’s interest to “give a campaign stump speech.” He called on Biden to discuss what the school represents, lay out his vision for “a more inclusive economy” and address the Israel-Hamas war.

The school “will allow silent non-disruptive protest,” but Thomas said he would shut down commencement ceremonies “on the spot” if there are any big disruptions preventing attendees’ ability to “partake and enjoy.”

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

During the meeting, which lasted over two hours, some faculty and students told Benjamin that they did not want Biden to deliver a campaign speech during his keynote address at the graduation ceremony. Instead, they wanted him to focus on the students’ accomplishments, according to a person who attended the meeting, who spoke on a condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

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

Laying the groundwork for weeks

The president’s advisers have consulted 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.

Biden’s team is also expected to study Obama’s 2013 Morehouse address as they craft the speech, according to a source familiar with the matter.

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

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

Heightened security presence

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

Senior faculty advisers helping prepare for the graduation ceremony this weekend held a meeting with the Secret Service and are monitoring student protests that are expected to happen this week, according to a source familiar with these conversations.

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

The de-escalation training is aimed at preparing these students to “address challenging situations that may arise” during the ceremony that could require them to intervene, according to the email.

The college has also cleared out academic buildings and student housing located near where the commencement speech is supposed to be held due to security reasons. This move has forced many students who are staying on campus after final exams to relocate to other buildings that are farther away from where the graduation ceremony is supposed to take place.

Stephane Dunn, a professor who has taught at the college for over 16 years, said that the Morehouse College faculty’s overall concern about Biden attending the graduation is that it will overshadow the event’s main purpose, which is to celebrate the nearly 500 students who are graduating.

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

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

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