Will Biden’s Morehouse speech address campus protests? History suggests so

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta.  CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal Constitution

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

On Sunday, President Joe Biden will step foot on a college campus for the first time since student protests over the war in Gaza at dozens of American universities, including some in Georgia, escalated to encampments, arrests and concerns about rising antisemitism.

Biden’s remarks at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he is scheduled to give the commencement address, will be closely scrutinized as some have called for protests of his support of the Israeli government’s actions in the region.

While the White House hasn’t shared many details about what Biden will say at Morehouse, it’s possible he’ll talk about the campus demonstrations. Biden said in a radio interview on Atlanta’s V-103 Wednesday morning that “I’ve been very clear, every American has the right to peacefully protest,” but added it’s unacceptable when it “crosses the line to hate speech.”

Presidents have often used commencement addresses during challenging moments for the nation to outline their positions on issues.

President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, announcing plans to impose major new tariffs on electric vehicles, semiconductors, solar equipment and medical supplies imported from China. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Credit: AP

The tradition dates back at least to 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Naval Academy — the most frequent commencement destination. The military academies account for 30% of presidential commencement addresses.

“I ask that you make it from now on your object to see that if ever the day should arise, your courage, your readiness, your eager desire to win fresh renown for the flag be made good by the training you have given yourselves and those under you in the practical work of your profession in seamanship and gunnery,” Roosevelt told the men.

Exactly a century later in 2002, in his first commencement address since the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush gave his vision for the war against terrorism at the commencement exercises at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Bush spent much of his speech addressing the attacks, the importance of America defending itself and its allies and what he described as the “perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology.”

“Our security will require the best intelligence, to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories,” he said. “Our security will require modernizing domestic agencies such as the FBI, so they’re prepared to act, and act quickly, against danger. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

In May of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan. Two months later he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, handing one of his pens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A year later, Johnson gave the commencement address at Howard University — which has hosted five sitting presidents, including Biden. The speech at the historically Black university focused on civil rights, while setting up the intellectual framework for affirmative action in “To Fulfill These Rights.”

“So, it is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation and, in so doing, to find America for ourselves, with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped those who first began to realize that here, at last, was a home for freedom,” Johnson said on the campus quad.

During his tenure in the White House, President Jimmy Carter spoke at four college commencements. In his 1977 address at Notre Dame — on the heels of Watergate and the Vietnam War — Carter laid out his foreign policy agenda.

“I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic. That is based on fundamental values. And it uses power and influence, which we have, for human purposes,” Carter said. “We can also have a foreign policy that the American people support and for a change, know about and understand.”

According to John Woolley, who maintains a database of presidential commencement speeches at the University of California - Santa Barbara, Carter spoke at four commencements during his presidency, including the Capitol Page School, the United States Naval Academy and Cheyney State College, now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

In 2013, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to speak at a Morehouse graduation and used his speech as an opportunity to talk directly to Black men.

On campus and beyond.

The first Black president said there was “no time for excuses” for that generation of African American men and that it was time for their generation to step up professionally and in their personal lives.

Through a steady downpour, Obama told the students that they “are the heirs to a great legacy. You have within you the same courage and that same strength, the same resolve as the men who came before you.

“That’s what being a Morehouse man is all about,” the president said. “That’s what being an American is about. Success may not come quickly or easily. But if you strive to do what’s right; if you work harder and dream bigger; if you set an example in your own lives and do your part to help meet the challenges of our time, then I am confident that, together, we will continue the never-ending task of perfecting our union.”

Obama’s final words were nearly drowned out by thunder. But he stayed long enough to receive an honorary doctor of law degree.