No plans to rescind Biden invitation, top Morehouse official says

A Morehouse College student walks past the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel, Monday, March 18, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

A Morehouse College student walks past the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel, Monday, March 18, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz /

When word spread that President Joe Biden would serve as Morehouse College’s 2024 commencement speaker, a loud contingent of students and alumni demanded that the Atlanta-based Black college rescind the invitation.

They argued that Biden was on the wrong side of the Israel-Hamas war and that he was using Morehouse as a prop to increase his sagging poll numbers among Black male voters.

A top Morehouse official said in an interview Monday the college is continuing with its plans for Biden to speak at its May 19 ceremony.

“There are of course opinions saying that we should rescind the invitation,” said Morehouse Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Kendrick Brown. “But there are a number of individuals who recognize this opportunity and the prominence of the speaker and an opportunity for Morehouse to highlight its mission and to be able to use this venue to ask important questions. So from that perspective, we have not, at this point, thought about rescinding anything.”

Kendrick Brown is the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse College. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Brown sat down with the AJC’s Politically Georgia team for a wide-ranging conversation with Tia Mitchell and Bill Nigut Monday morning.

Here are some of the highlights: (Questions and answers have been condensed for clarity).

Q: Why Biden and was this influenced by Trump’s recent visit to the Chick-fil-A near campus?

A: Being able to have the sitting president, President Biden as a commencement speaker, is very high profile. The invitation was extended in September of last year. We got a soft confirmation in December and certainly didn’t get any full confirmation until just recently. It is a process. It is not something that happens right away. It was not something that was influenced by candidate Trump.

Q: So it is a political gesture designed to be an easy visit for President Biden to speak to the Black community?

A: The reason that we invited President Biden here, the reason we invite any speaker to come to commencement, is that we believe they have something to say to encourage our graduates as they go out into the world. I hope this speech would not be about making a case or making a campaign. It should be about our students, it should be about what they’ve accomplished and what they’re going to accomplish as they go out into the world. President Biden... if he were to remember that this truly is about commencement and this truly is meant to be a celebration. That’s what our graduates want more than anything else.

Q: Does bringing Biden to campus make Morehouse complicit in what is happening in Gaza?

A: From the perspective of Morehouse College, we have a strong, enduring commitment to social justice. We also have a commitment to ensuring that Morehouse students, faculty and staff in our larger community can engage with the highest leaders in government to be able to voice their viewpoints. That does not always mean they’re going to be in agreement with those leaders. So President Biden coming here, it does give a spotlight to what Morehouse believes and being able to provide an opportunity for voices to be heard that otherwise would not be heard. I think that is healthy for the country. I think that is healthy for our college. That role is extremely important. This is what’s being afforded by having President Biden as the commencement speaker.

Q: Has there been any tone of antisemitic speech at Morehouse, as has been the case of other campuses and pro-Palestinian demonstrations?

A: I have not heard any antisemitic voices being expressed. Certainly, if that were the case, then the obligation of our college is to indeed confront that because as an HBCU that’s committed to Black men and men of color, we know very well how folks can be impacted by the history of discrimination and systematic bias. Expressing your opinion does not mean you get to express hate speech.

Q: How has Morehouse been able to avoid any on-campus protests or unrest, unlike other campuses in the area, notably Emory University and the University of Georgia?

A: What is important for us at Morehouse is that we very much value and appreciate the strong opinions that our students, faculty and staff have. We encourage them to have those opinions and I think the role of a college is to bring those strong perspectives into dialogue safely and certainly, without disrupting the operations of the college. We’ve had that commitment, we encourage folks to express themselves and we’ll do our best as a college to ensure things are safe, but college is meant to be that space. And I think having that attitude has enabled us to have dialogue with our students, faculty and staff.

Protesters gathered for a second day of pro-Palestinian demonstrations on the Emory University quad. Friday, April 26, 2024 (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

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Credit: Ben Hendren

Q: How are you preparing for the visit?

A: We will be working with the Secret Service. When the president comes to your campus, there are security protocols that you have to follow. But what I will also say is that during the ceremony itself, our faculty, staff and students — as long as we’re able to guarantee everyone’s safety and we don’t disrupt this celebration that is meant to acknowledge our students — they can express themselves. That is what our community does and that’s what we encourage them to do.

Q: What is the legacy of protest at Morehouse, as well as throughout the Atlanta University Center?

A: As the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of course, Sen. Raphael Warnock, we have a legacy and we have many proud alums who have engaged in public advocacy and activism. That is not something new for us at Morehouse and at the AUC. We understand that our students are going to act within that tradition that we cultivated, but we also know, and we trust our students to be able to keep in mind the importance of community. That even when you have strong opinions that might be in conflict with others who are part of your community, you still uphold safety and you still ensure that these voices can be heard. Even if you disagree with them.”

AJC producer Natalie Mendenhall contributed to this report.