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President Biden heads to Morehouse to deliver commencement speech

The administration has placed an emphasis on commencement addresses for HBCUs since he took office.
President Joe Biden
Posted at 1:05 PM, May 18, 2024

President Joe Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, amid tension on college campuses over the war in the Middle East and Biden's efforts to reach out to Black Americans.

Ahead of the president's speech at the historically black and all male school, the administration has been in contact with students and faculty at Morehouse, and Biden plans to meet with students and staff while there, according to a senior administration official.

"I think it will be a moving commencement address. I think it will meet the moment and I think you will hear directly from the president on how he sees obviously the future of this country and also the community that they represent,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

President Biden has been "intimately" involved in drafting the speech, and in listening to younger people on his team and senior advisers, including those who attended Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities, according to a senior administration official.

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"I think the President wants to use this as an opportunity to center, these young men, their accomplishments and certainly the role and leadership — they're going to take on the globe going forward. So this is going to be very much about these young men," said the official. "He recognizes the fact that he's the leader of the free world. So I'm sure he'll use it as a prerogative to talk about some other issues as well."

This year's commencement address comes as protests over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza have broken out on college campuses across the country. President Biden will treat peaceful protesters respectfully, Jean-Pierre said — adding, "It is up to Morehouse, on how they want to manage that and move forward with that but he's going to be respectful because it's not just the students, it's the parents, the loved ones, who want to be there to celebrate an important moment."

What officials are hearing on the ground is feeding into his speech, according to a White House official.

Last week, Steve Benjamin, senior adviser to President Biden and the director of public engagement, met with students, faculty and staff from Morehouse.

"Certainly, many of them wanted to talk about the Middle East and war. We talked about reconnecting communities and the amazing $160 million going in just up the street — The Stitch project in Atlanta — working to undo some of the damage done by previous infrastructure investments and how it's reconnecting in a very repairing and restorative way...we talked about wealth creation," Benjamin told reporters during a press briefing.

Joe Biden, when he was vice president, speaks at Morehouse College in Atlanta

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He said the messages were shared with President Biden and his speech writing team.

The White House says faculty also voted to award President Biden an honorary degree. A senior administration official said that "speaks volumes as to the accomplishments of the president and the Biden-Harris administration that have endured to the benefit of America, African Americans and HBCUs."

The administration has placed an emphasis on commencement addresses for HBCUs. Biden has given commencement addresses at HBCUs every year during his administration — with the exception of 2022, which he gave at the University of Delaware.

Vice President Kamala Harris also sent a recorded video message to all HBCUs across the country as well.

"As a proud HBCU graduate, I know firsthand the value of attending an institution like yours. You leave here having been taught you can do and be anything. And that you have a duty to be excellent. To work to uplift the condition of all people. And to fight to protect our most fundamental rights and freedoms," Harris tells graduates in the video.

The commencement address follows a week of significant engagement with Black Americans, as the administration marks 70 years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown V. Board of Education, leading to the desegregation of schools.

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A senior administration official said the feedback received this week "is that they very much have been moved by the significant developments."

It included speaking with the Little Rock Nine, meeting with leaders of the Divine Nine and plaintiffs and family members from the historic court case.

"We're still fighting the battle over whose children do we invest in? Any time we can talk about failing, underfunded public schools, there is a problem. There should be no such thing. Public institutions where most of us got our education should be world-class educational institutions. So I'm not understanding that. And I want us to roll up our sleeves and get back to the hard work of educating our children,” Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of plaintiff Oliver Brown, said to reporters following the meeting with Biden.

Those in the meeting described Biden’s message as one of appreciation.

"They're a living reminder that ‘once upon a time’ wasn't that long ago. And all the progress we've made is... we still have more to do. And there are still groups that are trying to erase it,” Biden said during a speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Citing research from Stanford and USC showing an increase in racial and economic segregation in schools in the last three decades, the White House announced investments in magnet school grants, establishing the Center on Fiscal Equity, and a process to develop federal actions to preserve African American history. The administration also announced $16 billion has been invested in HBCUs.

“The founders of Morehouse understood something fundamental: Education is linked to freedom. Because to be free means to have something that no one can ever take away from you,” Biden said during Friday’s speech.

Joe Biden, when he was vice president, speaks at Morehouse College in Atlanta
Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

The engagements come as the White House highlights efforts under the Biden-Harris administration to address racial disparities and inequities. Officials frequently point to education factors, including student loan forgiveness, investments in schools through the American Rescue Plan and investments in HBCUs, as well as economic factors, including small businesses, unemployment rates and real wage gains for Black Americans.

“The data, really point to large numbers of African Americans able to find work, and they're able to actually increase their pay,” Kirabo Jackson, a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, told Scripps News. “We're seeing a general occupational up-skilling that is happening among the African American community, which is really facilitated by the strong labor market, which is allowing Black Americans to move up the occupational ladder.”

Biden is also expected to speak at the NAACP Detroit branch’s annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner following the commencement address at Morehouse.

“I hope this President would talk about the accomplishments that he has made, how it applies to African Americans in their quality of life, and what the road ahead looks like. We are in the midst of a crisis where we have a functioning democracy that's representative of all citizens, or we have something less than that. And that's something this president must speak to because people are nervous about what the future holds. But also for the NAACP, we tell all citizens, the power is in your hands, your vote matters, and we must exercise that vote,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told Scripps News.

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However, recent polling points to questions about whether Biden maintains the same support among Black voters with the 2024 election less than six months away. A recent New York Times/Sienna College poll found former president Donald Trump garnered more than 20 percent support.

Johnson dismissed concerns to reporters last week.

“I don't accept the premise that there's any erosion of Black support. I believe that polls have proven itself to be untrue for the last four election cycles. What I do believe is we are in a crisis of our democracy,” he said.

The Biden-Harris Campaign maintains consistency in efforts to reach Black voters, in a new memo. It underscored travel focused on black communities, investments in Black media and expanded organizing and outreach with small businesses while framing progress under Biden and failure under Trump for Black Americans.

“Since day one, the Biden-Harris campaign has been authentic and consistent in our efforts to reach Black voters and ensure they are aware that no other administration in modern history has delivered for Black America in the way Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have. From historic investments and engagement with Black media to extensive travel by President Biden and Vice President Harris as well as innovative organizing programs that highlight the administration’s commitment to generating Black wealth – we are meeting Black voters where they are,” said Trey Baker, a campaign senior adviser.

President Biden’s engagements will bring him to key swing states, Georgia and Michigan this weekend. President Biden will also take part in a campaign event Saturday to engage with Black voters while in Georgia, and visit small businesses in both states.