From anxiety to protest to exultation, Morehouse welcomes its new graduates

Graduates help each other don hoods at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)



Graduates help each other don hoods at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

In the days and weeks leading up to President Joe Biden’s commencement address at Morehouse College graduation, anxiety was high.

The Biden administration’s policies regarding the war in Gaza had divided some on campus. Threats of protests and disruptions hung over the annual ceremony like the dark clouds that constantly threatened rain all morning.

But in the end, on an overcast Sunday, Morehouse did what it had done 139 times previously – send the next generation of Black men into the world.

More than 400 “Men of Morehouse,” became “Morehouse Men,” at the school’s 140th commencement ceremony. Full of symbolism and tradition, the morning served more as a celebration than an indictment.

“There were some people that were upset with Biden speaking. But the fact that the President of the United States took time out of his day to come speak to us was remarkable,” said Jaiden Proper, a graduating pitcher on the baseball team. “I didn’t really have a problem with it. I would have I would have liked my loans to be forgiven.”

(Billionaire Robert F. Smith stunned the audience when he announced in his 2019 commencement speech at Morehouse that he would pay off the student loan debt for that year’s graduating class.)

DeAngelo’s stance

Class valedictorian DeAngelo Fletcher quickly addressed what was on the minds of many.

With a Palestinian flag affixed to his sash and his graduation cap the Chicago native was the first person to directly speak on the Gaza conflict.

After thanking his family and speaking on how Morehouse shaped him, Fletcher said he almost turned down the opportunity to address his classmates, before determining that it was his duty to speak.

“I would like to utilize this honorable platform to speak on global politics. It’s only right for the class of 2024 to utilize any platform provided to stand in solidarity with peace and justice. The Israel-Hamas conflict has plagued the people of its region, for generations,” he said. “It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay, as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, in the Gaza Strip.”

Morehouse President David A. Thomas hugged Fletcher. Biden stood and shook his hand.

Valedictorian DeAngelo Fletcher speaks at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

In his speech, Biden called for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, while also announcing another $16 billion investment into historically Black colleges and universities.

“President Biden’s speech walked the line of getting his message across while also trying to relate to us young men of color,” said Devin Aiken, a newly-minted graduate from Kennesaw. “I’m glad it wasn’t a political rant and I appreciate that he spoke about the issues in Palestine that people wanted to hear. He did a great job at walking the tension that was building and didn’t do anything that would’ve caused it to erupt.”

Standing alone

The ceremony was peaceful, although there were subtle moments of protest.

On stage, at least three faculty members — Stephane Dunn, Cynthia Hewitt and Samuel Livingston — periodically waved a flag from the Democratic Republic of Congo to draw attention to the ongoing conflict in that African region.

During Biden’s speech, a handful of graduates turned their backs on him.

President Joe Biden speaks at the commencement ceremony on May 19, 2024 at Morehouse College as assistant professor Taura Taylor raises her fist in protest of the Gaza war. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Taura Taylor, an assistant professor of sociology, stood and turned her back to him, holding her right fist in the air.

Taylor said her act of protest was a demonstration for her and her students.

“Once I knew that they weren’t gonna rescind on Biden being the speaker and his getting the honorary (degree), I knew I was going to do it,” Taylor said. “It was more so because of my values, but mostly about my students whose voices would not be heard. They could silently protest, but not disrupt.”

Last week, Thomas threatened to halt the graduation if protests got out of hand. Several people close to the college said that Thomas and other high-level officials spent weeks talking to seniors about the importance of silent protest.

“What I have done, was in the spirit of what our ancestors have stood on,” Taylor said.

The Crowning Moment

The morning started at about 8:37 a.m. when African drummers began to lead the graduates from the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel into the Century Campus where the ceremonies were to be held.

The graduate processional marched through a tunnel of robed members of the Morehouse faculty.

In a speech called “Crowning Moment,” Mel Foster, the associate provost for academic success, meticulously described the process, carefully explaining the symbolism of everything from the mace the marshals carried to why the gates would soon be closed and locked.

As he talked, the African drums grew louder as the seniors arrived and walked along a column lined with their families. Gradually, as the drums got louder, the crowd paid less attention to Foster as they tried to get a glimpse of their loved ones.

When the graduates reached the top of the green, Foster repeated three times: “Let the drums go silent!”

“Now,” Foster said. “The crowning moment has arrived.”

Tasha Davis, whose son Quentin Patterson graduated with a degree in business administration, said the event was amazing.

“It’s an honor and a blessing. It’s an emotional day seeing my baby graduate, especially because as a 2020 high school graduate, he didn’t get to have a high school graduation,” Davis said. “So to celebrate his accomplishments here at Morehouse is very special.”

Davis, from Chicago, said 25 family and friends, including her son’s twin brother who is in a dual degree program at Morehouse and Georgia Tech, came to celebrate.

“I prayed about it and I had faith that the Morehouse community was going to do the right thing,” Davis said. “I felt they were going to be peaceful and respectful to allow these young men their day.”

Here comes the sun

By the time Thomas returned to the microphone to close out the ceremony, Biden was long gone.

All the names had been called, all of the faculty awards had been given out and all of the graduates were inducted into the alumni association.

Earlier, when Thomas was introducing Biden, he struggled several times to catch his breath.

In an interview last week, he talked about the pressure and stress he had been under because of the Biden invitation.

But as he closed the 140th commencement, he offered his biggest smile of the day. His voice was clear and strong.

“Some of you wore signs, but you did so in a dignified way. A way that made clear your stance, but didn’t dehumanize,” Thomas said. “We made history today. You showed the world why the world needs Morehouse.”

For the first time all morning, the sun was shining.

Morehouse College student Elijah Megginson contributed to this report.