Opinion: Morehouse College, President Biden and America’s moral crisis

When I recently organized thousands of books I own, I came across one of my favorites, “Strength To Love” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On the front inside cover, I have my name, my campus address and my college — Morehouse College.

As a young man, I was inspired by and educated in the sermons, speeches and writings of King. He is Morehouse’s most famous alum. King is the moral exemplar of any brand or identity the college claims to have in the world. For this reason, I am criticizing the moral complicity and moral complacency embedded in the college’s invitation to President Joe Biden to be commencement speaker at this time, and to receive an honorary degree — to become one of us at Sunday’s graduation.

To be one of us, in the best sense, is to deeply embrace King’s critique of racism, militarism and extreme capitalism, which motivated him to break with President Lyndon B. Johnson 57 years ago. King spoke out against the Vietnam War in a speech titled “A Time to Break Silence.” King demonstrated moral courage and endured sustained criticism, because this was the same president who had shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. No doubt, Johnson himself, a son of the South, demonstrated great courage to move Dixiecrats and Republicans to fundamentally alter the nature of our racialized democracy to be better, to move toward equality.

But that courage did not buy King’s silence. Today, Biden, whose complicated political history we know, has done nothing near as historic. In fact, he has been part of two administrations, where we have seen those historic gains of the Civil Rights Movement fundamentally eroded.

Biden has not courageously fought to cancel all student loan debt, which disproportionately burdens Black college students, and upon which historically Black colleges and universities over rely to keep the doors open. His U.S. Department of Education has presided over a broken FAFSA process that is disproportionately harming Black students who aspire to go or return to college.

Marlon Millner

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

But like Johnson, Biden has funded and armed a war. The Israeli war in Gaza was precipitated by an act of terror by the military wing of Hamas, killing over 1,200 innocent people, and taking more than 240 people hostage, many of whom are now dead. The killing machine unleashed and undergirded by the United States has reportedly killed more than 35,000 people, mainly women and children, as an estimated 450,000 people flee the last safe haven — Rafah — which Israel is now invading.

Biden, unilaterally committed to Israel as a nation-state, has not engaged in anything close to the moral courage of President Jimmy Carter with the Camp David Accords, or President Bill Clinton and the Oslo Accords. I stand in the political tradition of these actions and the courage of Black people who have done the work with American Jews, American Arabs and Palestinians and Israelis alike.

At the invitation of the Anti-Defamation League, as a Morehouse student, I visited Poland and Israel with other campus newspaper editors to both learn about the Holocaust and engage all sides in what was then a violence-soaked setting in Israel, as the Palestinian Authority first emerged.

My demand for an immediate and permanent cease-fire to the war in Gaza, the release of all hostages (dead or alive) and for an irreversible and irrevocable and non-pausing process for creating a Palestinian state is rooted in both the moral courage of the Black freedom struggle and its clear understanding of solidarity for global abolition of racism, poverty and war. My demand is also rooted in the moral courage of some presidents, who have also clearly failed in other areas of political leadership.

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas also stands in a tradition of leadership. President Benjamin Elijah Mays is often invoked as moral tutor to King. And both men are monumentalized on our campus. I would say to Thomas, this is no time for corporatist transactional morality, which believes preserving diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Fortune 1000 companies translates into Black freedom, while King was killed marching with Memphis sanitation workers.

The best of Morehouse’s so-called “mystique” is not words from the leader of the free world, but letting the voice of suffering speak, as King did from a jail cell in Birmingham, as he challenged pastors and presidents who called for law and order to maintain Black and global suffering.

The Morehouse commencement is not an appearance in the NCAA Final Four, where the president’s speech will provide clear measurable returns in prospective student applications and endowment donations. The symbolic benefits are far more for Biden being embraced by a school defined by Black excellence and moral courage. In doing so, Morehouse becomes complicit in what is being eroded and complacent, supporting a transactional politics that cannot stop the threat to a democracy yet to be born.

Commencement is the ceremonial capstone of the college experience. My graduation 29 years ago was a momentous moment. My parents, now deceased, were there, as was my girlfriend, who was a Spelman sister who graduated that same year. Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who went on to lead the NAACP, was the speaker. I don’t remember what he said. But I remember my brothers. I remember our passionate debates, intense classroom discussions and even homecoming parties, games and celebrations. But even more, I remember a crown that remains above our heads, for which we must grow morally courageous enough to wear.

To that end, I stand with my young, newly minted Morehouse brothers as they find the courage to commence graduation with a stand against racism, poverty and war. May my alma mater’s administration and our country’s president find the courage to do the same.

Marlon Millner is an educator in Illinois and a 1995 graduate of Morehouse College.