President Joe Biden gave a high-stakes commencement speech to hundreds of young Black men at Morehouse College on Sunday, delivering a direct address to the constituency his campaign worries is shifting against him as he runs for reelection against former President Donald Trump.

The Democrat focused parts of his speech laying out the stakes of the 2024 campaign to the graduates of the all-male historically Black college, saying he was determined to “root out systemic racism” while fighting the “extremist forces aligned against the meaning and message” of the school.

And Biden spoke broadly about his handling of the Israel-Hamas war that led to threats of boycotts and protests of his speech, revealing that his own family is upset by the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza that worsened after Israel launched its military campaign following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

As Morehouse’s class of 2024 approaches graduation, students and faculty share their feelings about President Biden’s visit to the campus.

“It’s one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it,” the president said, nodding to the 414 graduating seniors arrayed before him. “I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine.”

The 27-minute speech was Biden’s most significant public remarks to students since protests over the war in Gaza broke out in campuses around the nation last month. It was relatively well received at Morehouse, where some students and faculty had urged administrators to rescind the president’s invitation to speak.

President Joe Biden receives an honorary degree at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


icon to expand image


Although there were no embarrassing scenes of mass disruptions during the graduation ceremony, there were quieter symbols of protest throughout the event.

As Biden spoke, assistant professor Taura Taylor turned her back to the president while raising her right hand in a fist. A few students in one row sat with their backs to Biden while holding a Palestinian flag.

Assistant Professor Taura Taylor raises her fist in protest of the Gaza war at the Morehouse commencement ceremony in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


icon to expand image


While alumni rose to give Biden a standing ovation, students notably stayed in their seats. And the crowd roared after the valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said it was “my stance as a Morehouse man, as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire.”

Outside the strict security measures surrounding the gated campus, more than 100 protesters marched to Morehouse, some waving signs reading “Genocide Joe” and chants demanding a cease-fire.

Dozens of people chant as they stand on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard outside Morehouse College as they protest against President Joe Biden’s visit, who is the main speaker for Morehouse College’s 140th Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 19, 2024.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Among the demonstrators who marched from West End Park to the Atlanta University Center was Daxton Pettus, a junior at Morehouse, who said he felt he was standing up for what is right.

”I made a commitment, a personal commitment to be on the right side of history and to be an active agent,” said Pettus, who noted one of Morehouse’s most famed graduates.

“This is the home of Martin Luther King. And we’re inviting a war criminal to come to speak to students, even though he is the president.”

Biden referenced the ongoing war in broad terms, saying the conflict is “heartbreaking” and that he’s working “around the clock” to bring an end to the fighting that started on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants invaded Israel. Discussions about Biden speaking at Morehouse’s commencement began before the fighting.

“I support peaceful nonviolent protest,” Biden said. “Your voices should be heard. I promise you I hear you.”

There were also efforts to highlight foreign conflict that Biden didn’t directly reference. On stage, at least three faculty members periodically waved a flag from the Democratic Republic of Congo to draw attention to the ongoing civil war in that African nation.

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


icon to expand image


Some expressed excitement over Biden’s visit, noting the rarity of a president speaking at a historically Black college, a part of the higher education system long neglected by political leaders. There were chants of “four more years” as he received an honorary degree.

“I’m actually very glad that President Biden is coming to Morehouse,” Braxton Broady, a student, told the Politically Georgia podcast. “Regardless of whoever’s political belief, I think that the attention that a sitting president brings to campus is a great bargaining chip.”

Biden has largely backed Israel’s approach to the ongoing war with Hamas, though he’s more recently called for more humanitarian aid and Israeli restraint.

His stance, along with a recent military aid package for Israel, has infuriated pro-Palestinian protesters who have staged encampments in many college campuses, including at Emory University and the University of Georgia.

The backlash at Morehouse, however, has taken place more in campus discussions than public demonstrations. And as petitions circulated objecting to Biden’s speech, Morehouse’s president David A. Thomas warned he would stop the graduation ceremony if there were public disruptions.

The visit came as Biden’s campaign is struggling to recapture the excitement and energy that propelled his narrow 2020 victory in Georgia, when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in nearly three decades.

Polls show Trump gaining more traction with Black voters — long the party’s most loyal constituency — and tight races in Georgia battleground states in a rematch that many voters say they dread.

While senior Democratic strategists don’t worry about Trump forging a breakthrough among Black voters, they fret that many who voted for the Democrat in 2020 will stay home this November.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II (left) at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


icon to expand image


Republicans view even modest gains among voters of color as crucial to flipping Georgia, a linchpin in Trump’s comeback strategy. At the Georgia GOP convention this weekend in Columbus, several political leaders spoke hopefully about Trump cracking double-digits of Black support this year.

“Black Georgians don’t need Joe Biden to tell them what’s good for them,” said Republican state Rep. Mesha Mainor, a Black legislator from Atlanta who switched parties last year. “Black Georgians were much better off before Biden’s failed policies sent inflation to historic highs.”

Ahead of Sunday’s speech, Biden headlined a flurry of events aimed at shoring up the party’s base. And he made several stops in Atlanta on Saturday to showcase his Black support.

He was welcomed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with a group of Morehouse graduates, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of his most important allies in Georgia. And he told voters at a fundraiser Georgia is “the reason I won.”

On Sunday, Biden told students he had fought for many of the same principles they are pursuing, urging them at one point to “check my record,” noting his support for student debt relief, more funding for historically Black colleges and the appointment of the the first Black female Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

For students who wonder “what is democracy when Black men are being killed in the street,” Biden said, he turns to inspiration from religious scripture — the same teachings that helped him as he struggled with the deaths of his first wife and two of his children.

“I’ve learned there was no easy optimism,” he said, “but by faith you can find redemption.”

Before he left Georgia for a campaign stop in Michigan, Biden peppered the Morehouse audience with praise for the school. He noted that several of his top advisers are Morehouse Men.

”Education makes you free,” he said. “A Morehouse education makes you fearless.”