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Biden Fared Well at Morehouse. So You Didn’t Hear About It.

Biden’s speech wasn’t groundbreaking. But he did not take these talented 20-somethings for granted.

Joan Walsh

May 20, 2024

President Joe Biden speaks at commencement at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Biden renewed his call for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza, while some participants donned Palestinian colors in protest at Israel’s war. (Christian Monterrosa / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Trust me: If President Joe Biden had faced hecklers or worse when he gave the Morehouse College commencement speech on Sunday, you would know about it. It would have led every newscast and dominated headlines in every paper, another dire portent of his alleged troubles with Black voters coming in November.

Instead, Biden faced a low-key protest. He clapped for and shook hands with the valedictorian who demanded a cease-fire in Gaza, and otherwise fared well. So you probably didn’t hear about it.

I try not to cover the “Biden is treated unfairly” beat. It’s now a dog bites man story. But this was impossible to ignore. I covered many events with Vice President Kamala Harris this last week, and I heard from many reporters how on edge they were, as was the administration, about Biden’s reception at Morehouse. Some student activists had demanded that the administration rescind his invitation, and a few faculty members said they wouldn’t attend the ceremony.

So why wasn’t it a big deal when it went fine?

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It’s the nature of news. We cover plane crashes, not safe plane landings. But I think Biden’s soft landing represents smart outreach to the Black community, or communities, that paid off. And that’s news.

On a visit to Atlanta, Harris talked to the Morehouse student government president about campus views on Gaza and what graduates most needed to hear from Biden. Steve Benjamin, his director of public engagement, went to talk to students and faculty last week.

If you’re cynical, you’ll call that pandering. I call it respecting an important constituency: young college-educated Black men—and their tuition-paying parents. And most reporters don’t pay attention to that kind of thing.

Morehouse President David Thomas did something important: He promised he wouldn’t call in police and arrest students. “We won’t allow…disruptive behavior that prevents the ceremony or services from proceeding in a manner that those in attendance can partake and enjoy,” Thomas told CNN Thursday. But he nodded to the alternative: “I have also made a decision that we will also not ask police to take individuals out of commencement in zip ties. If faced with the choice, I will cease the ceremonies on the spot.”

I know some students questioned whether that was truly freedom of speech, but it was so much better than what’s happened on other campuses. And the mere statement of policy, plus Morehouse tradition, kept things calm.

Biden’s speech wasn’t groundbreaking. But he did not take for granted that these talented 20-somethings knew anything about his history. He went all the way back from turning away from corporate law to becoming a public defender after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (King was a Morehouse man) in 1968. And again he told the story of his family tragedies, from losing his wife and young daughter just after his election as a senator in 1972 to losing his son and most trusted adviser Beau in 2015.

He praised the tradition of nonviolent protest still followed in the name of King, and acknowledged the quiet protests at Morehouse of his Gaza policies. Biden went a bit further than I’ve seen him in acknowledging the nightmare that our tax dollars have created there, reiterating his call for a cease-fire and decrying Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s interference with humanitarian aid.

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“I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family,” Biden said. (It’s been reported that first lady Jill Biden has pressed him to do more to end the carnage, but he’s never before publicly acknowledged it.)

“But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.”

It bears mentioning that VP Harris took the administration a step beyond where it had been when she addressed the Selma anniversary gathering in March. It’s interesting that Biden stepped out at Morehouse.

Although Biden reportedly paused a shipment of weapons to Israel recently, it’s not believable that he’s done all he can to either end the conflict or increase the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza. On the other hand, diplomacy is by its nature quiet. Maybe Biden was spinning. Maybe more is going on than we know.

But the main takeaway from his comparative Morehouse triumph is that his administration invested resources in understanding a core constituency and treating it with respect.

Let’s hope Biden and Harris are able to do that in many more Black communities before November.

Joan WalshTwitterJoan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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