Will Black men in Georgia vote for Biden or stay home?

Sunday’s visit to Morehouse could be a key moment to galvanizing support with a core voting bloc
Barber Therelle Lewis gives Joe King, another barber, a trim at Off the Hook Barber Shop in Atlanta on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Barber Therelle Lewis gives Joe King, another barber, a trim at Off the Hook Barber Shop in Atlanta on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

If Morehouse College truly serves as an avatar for the mood and thinking of Black men in America, never will that be more evident than Sunday morning.

On the Century Campus lawn, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson once walked as students, President Joe Biden is set to address the college’s several hundred graduates at the annual commencement services. But when he rises to the rostrum to address the Morehouse Men, his audience will be bigger.

A spate of recent polls show former President Donald Trump with traction among Black voters, including a New York Times/Siena poll of Georgia voters recently released that showed about 20% of Black respondents are leaning toward Trump in a head-to-head matchup in November.

While political scientists and veteran analysts from both parties urge a cautious approach to those surveys, they underscore a bigger challenge.

Put simply, the president’s allies don’t see it as a question of Biden or Trump among Black men, who have long been among the most loyal Democratic voters. It’s more of a battle between Biden or the couch.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden visits Morehouse College during a three-college tour to mobilize students to take action to prevent sexual assault on campuses on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015 in Atlanta. AJC FILE PHOTO.

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

“The real question is turnout,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “There are certainly doubts about whether Democrats can mobilize Black voters and other parts of the base, and whether there is enough enthusiasm for his campaign. Some of them will come home, but others may not vote at all.”

Backed by Black voters who resurrected his struggling campaign in South Carolina in 2020, along with helping wrest control of the U.S. Senate with stunning runoff victories in 2021, Biden made broad promises to do more than past presidents to improve their situations.

He tapped Kamala Harris as his running mate. The Howard University graduate is the first Black woman to ever be elected vice president. He also appointed Ketanji Brown Jackson as the country’s first Black female Supreme Court justice.

But because of Republican opposition and Democratic infighting, some of Biden’s biggest policy promises — like more robust student loan debt relief, criminal justice overhauls and federal voting rights expansions — stalled or failed.

Those, as well as what many see as a lagging economy and stubborn inflation, have drained enthusiasm away from Biden for some Black male voters.

Biden surprised many political pundits by winning Georgia in 2020 by a slim margin. Nearly 90% of Black voters cast their ballots for him. He’ll need their support, and in large numbers, to be reelected. Team Biden has made numerous stops in Georgia in recent months. The president will be back in Atlanta in late June for a debate with Trump.

The Rev. James Woodall, a policy associate with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said Biden has his work cut out for him.

“For the folks who are engaged, another speech won’t change the fact when we look at policies, there is not a lot of prior satisfaction on our part,” said Woodall, the former president of the Georgia NAACP. “President Biden can say whatever at Morehouse, but the reality is, our community is still receiving the same level of divestment.”

It’s one reason why the New Georgia Project, the voter mobilization group founded by Stacey Abrams, is launching a program in June aimed at engaging at least 100,000 Black Georgia men to encourage them to vote. Keron Blair, who directs the organization’s field operations, said it’s clear through his travels across the state that the Biden campaign has struggled to communicate with those voters.

“The question is, ‘What has Biden done?’ The truth is, a lot has happened and the stories of the wins have not made their way to the doorsteps of voters, particularly Black men,” Blair said.

Tapping Black men as surrogates, part of Blair’s plan is to register at least 20,000 new Black male voters this year.

“In the conversations we are having, I am not hearing folks say, ‘Trump is the way,’” Blair said, adding that he’s more worried about the lies that activist groups have largely ignored.

“We have to show up to the polls with good information, to make sure that our folks understand the moment,” he said. “It is a warning.”

Count Cecil Clark among the Biden supporters who scoff at the hand-wringing over the Democrat’s base support. The self-proclaimed “Super Biden Voter” jokes that he has been Black all his life and has never met a Black Trump backer.

“It is all BS to be honest with you,” said Clark, a retired Marine who lives in Clayton County. “Sure, you might have some disgruntled people who don’t vote, but I believe that after September, these people are gonna come home.”

Woodall said it would be reckless to count the former president out. He still hasn’t decided whom to back in November, though he also said he won’t vote for the Republican.

“There are people in the barbershops saying that Trump wasn’t that bad, compared to what they are experiencing now,” said Woodall. “Democrats continue to take Black voters for granted, so a lot of people don’t care that Trump is horrible. They don’t care that he is a racist and a criminal. They think life was a little bit better under Trump.”

The barber shop

It was slow on a rainy Thursday afternoon at Off the Hook Barber Shop, an institution in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood near Morehouse for more than 25 years.

The walls are filled with old pictures of barbers and clients from over the years. The buzz of barber Therelle Lewis’ clippers is drowned out only by the constant barbershop chatter — this day about Biden and his trip to Morehouse, the nation’s only historically Black college for men.

Clients and barbers are seen at Off the Hook Barber Shop in Atlanta on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

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Jahbreel Clark, 25, said he doesn’t think Biden’s visit is sincere.

“I think it’s, you know, to pull a vote,” Jahbreel Clark said. “Just to get the elephant out of the room, he’s a white dude at an HBCU full of Black men. There’s nothing that he can tell us that we don’t already know about ourselves. So, take what he says with a grain of salt. It shouldn’t make you or break you.”

Jahbreel Clark said local elections are most likely to affect him.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me either way,” he said about the presidential race. “Nothing’s really going to change.”

Joe King, 68, said that it’s good to have Biden coming to Morehouse, and that it is smart to court Black voters. But he said Morehouse should not be his only stop.

“You need to walk downtown Atlanta, walk the streets of the community, to see and talk to us,” King said while Lewis trimmed his hair.

A Barack Obama poster is seen inside Off the Hook Barber Shop in Atlanta on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

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Lewis jumped in and added that Biden’s visit is all about getting votes.

“All this about him coming to Morehouse, that’s campaigning,” Lewis said. “But you gotta see what the man got to say. If he doesn’t say what you like, then you have something to talk about.”

King said “we’re still debating within ourselves” when asked if he’ll vote for Biden.

Lewis, dusting the hair away from King’s shoulders, said it’s still too early for him to decide who would get his vote.

Risks and rewards

Biden’s visit to Morehouse also comes at a time when college campuses have become the intellectual battlegrounds over the president’s staunch support for Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

The Biden administration has sent billions of dollars in aid to Israel, a close ally. But pro-Palestinian protests have sprung up at dozens of U.S. campuses from Columbia University in New York to Emory University and the University of Georgia closer to home.

When Biden was announced as Morehouse’s commencement speaker, some graduates and students voiced their opposition, going so far as to author a petition demanding that the administration rescind the invitation and threatening to protest.

The White House is taking steps to smooth his path. A key Biden aide visited the school to talk with students and faculty in a conversation that stretched hours.

The president, meanwhile, joined one of Atlanta’s most popular Black radio stations Wednesday to gush about how excited he was to “speak to the future leaders of America this weekend.”

“But I’ve been very clear. Every American has the right to peacefully protest,” Biden told V-103. “Once that protest crosses the line into hate speech and violence, that’s unacceptable.”

Morehouse President David A. Thomas said he is prepared to halt the commencement ceremonies if protests interrupt the proceedings.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said the swirling talk of backlash at Morehouse College seems overblown. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s mostly heard a “great deal of excitement” in conversations with students and alumni.

“There are a lot of folks that recognize that here is an administration that has invested $7 billion in HBCUs. And this is critically important because for literally 157 years, they have been punching way above their weight,” said Warnock, a 1991 graduate of Morehouse. “The president understands the importance of these schools.”

U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., (left), received the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., (right), received the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at Morehouse College's 2022 commencement ceremony. Warnock, a Morehouse graduate, also delivered the commencement address. AJC FILE PHOTO.

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Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Still, the visit is politically risky. The possibility of Black students rejecting Biden could reverberate through November. Jason Johnson, a political scientist at the historically Black Morgan State University, questions why he picked a politically charged campus with a legacy of protests to make his appeal.

“The imagery of young people, especially young Black men, potentially turning their backs, potentially walking out during the middle of graduation … I don’t think that’s great imagery,” Johnson said.

A tour guide ushers prospective students to the Benjamin E. Mays Memorial, in front of Graves Hall on the Morehouse College campus, on March 18, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Johnson said a better venue could have been someplace like Albany State University, located in a more rural region that was hit hard by COVID-19. Biden, Johnson said, could have easily touted his successes, while also stressing his role in addressing the pandemic.

In the interview, Warnock shared the story of a recent visitor to Ebenezer Baptist Church, which he has pastored since 2005, who confessed that he fought to defeat Warnock in the 2022 midterm election.

Even so, he came up to Warnock and told him he considered him a “good man.” It stuck with the senator.

“We’ve got to find a way to engage one another at the human level,” he said. “There are places where we can work with people with whom we disagree without being disagreeable. And Joe Biden certainly knows how to do that.”

He often said he views his 2021 runoff victory — a day before the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol — as an “inflection point” in American politics.

“We are still at that inflection point. That’s really what’s at stake,” Warnock said. “And I am very proud that Morehouse is once again at the center of that important debate.”