Why Morehouse graduates are unlikely to disrupt Biden’s commencement speech

When President Joe Biden delivers his commencement speech at Morehouse College, many will be waiting to see whether students or graduates will protest against the president’s administration for its policy stance on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians.

On Sunday, May 19, Biden will give his first major address before college students since the beginning of the Middle East war that sparked mass protests and arrests on university campuses across the country. 

Morehouse, an HBCU, being the venue of choice sparked outrage from students, faculty, and alumni, so much so that last week the White House sent Biden senior advisor and Director of Public Engagement Stephen Benjamin to the campus to meet with a small group of students and faculty to hear their concerns. 

Despite concerns about major protests at Morehouse’s commencement, it may be unlikely — or at least that is the hope. 

Aylon Gipson, a graduating senior who attended last week’s meeting with Benjamin, told theGrio that he is “very optimistic” that his Morehouse peers will keep things peaceful. 

“They want a calm, peaceful, normal graduation,” said the economics major and political science minor from Montgomery, Alabama. Gipson pointed out that the class of 2024 did not get the opportunity to have a high school graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“They want their families to feel safe during commencement, and this is kind of their moment and their opportunity to walk the stage,” he said.  

Gipson, who said he is not happy with the humanitarian crisis that has killed thousands of Palestinians, said he doesn’t want graduation to be overshadowed by a “sad moment” in which law enforcement gets involved or “tear gas is flying,” adding, “That’s not really representative of Morehouse College.”

Morehouse President David A. Thomas similarly told theGrio during an interview this week, “I can’t imagine a group of my students feeling so strongly about a difference with my decision to bring the president that they would want to violate the dignity of this institution in a public way that would lead to people being taken out of a Morehouse Commencement in zip ties.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MAY 21: David A. Thomas, Morehouse President, speaks onstage during the 2023 139th Morehouse College Commencement Ceremony at Morehouse College on May 21, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

As many Morehouse alumni point out, graduation at the all-male college and the venue — Century Campus — is seen as a “sacred” place. “Students don’t don’t even walk on the grass except for graduation and special functions,” Thomas said.

Gipson told theGrio he gets the sense that fellow graduates are less concerned about protesting Biden’s presence and more concerned about “what he will say.” As students expressed to Benjamin last week, Gipson said graduates don’t want to hear a “campaign speech.” Instead, they want to hear directly from the president about the war and the lives lost daily at the hands of military conflict in Gaza. 

Thomas said he would also like President Biden to speak on the Israel-Hamas war and not “duck the issue of the moment.” He added, “I hope he will call for a permanent ceasefire and make it clear to us that that’s what he is working for.”

When asked about President Biden’s presence potentially overshadowing the Morehouse commencement, Benjamin during Thursday’s White House press briefing said, “The goal will be to make sure that we use this as an opportunity to continue to elevate the amazing work that’s been done at Morehouse over the last century and a half.”

Benjamin previously told theGrio Biden was “listening very closely to all the concerns raised and making sure that he addresses them either in the speech or separate and apart from that.” 

Time will only tell whether the president satisfies his audience. However, Gipson noted that he feels “better” after meeting with Benjamin, who he noted “very effectively listened to all of our comments and concerns, [and] took detailed notes” during the gathering. He said he was particularly intrigued by the fact that Biden is “not backing down” from the opportunity to speak at Morehouse. 

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 19: US President Joe Biden waves after speaking at Stupak Community Center on March 19, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Biden delivered remarks on making affordable housing more available for American families. (Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images)

Though he said it’s every graduate’s right to protest, there should also be “some form of respect within that peaceful protest, not only to the president but to our guests who are attending this graduation.” He added, “I think that it will be a very special moment to … hear what he has to say.”

Thomas dismissed criticisms from students and alumni who argued that inviting President Biden to the college amidst what they see as a humanitarian violation aided by the United States dishonors Morehouse’s most esteemed alum, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“They tell me that Dr. King would not want Biden to come and speak, and I point out to them that … when Dr. King first approached President [John F.] Kennedy, President Kennedy was not down with the Black people. Dr. King kept talking to him,” Thomas said. “[President] Lyndon Johnson was not a big integrationist. Dr. King kept talking to him.” He added, “That’s what leadership requires in these moments.”  

Ultimately, Thomas said he wants the Class of 2024 to “walk away with a sense that the president of the United States chose to speak at Morehouse because Morehouse matters.”

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