Biden tells Morehouse graduates that he hears their voices of protest over the war in Gaza

President Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta that he heard their voices of protest.
President Joe Biden, left, stands with valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This story was updated on Sunday, May 19 at 3:27 p.m.

President Joe Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking.

“I support peaceful nonviolent protest,” he told students, some who wore keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. “Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.”

President Joe Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking. Here’s a scene from inside the ceremony. (Juma Sei/WABE)

The president told the crowd that it was a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that’s why I’ve called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting” and bring home the hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The comments, toward the end of his address that also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it, were the most direct recognition to U.S. students about the campus protests that have swept across the country.

Morehouse’s announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the school’s faculty and supporters who oppose Biden’s handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and soliciting signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

Protesters advocating for Palestine and against President Joe Biden outside Morehouse College at the intersection of Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard during Biden’s commencement address on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Julien Virgin/WABE)

The letter claimed that Biden’s approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse’s most famous graduate.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to local health officials.

Some members of the graduating class showed support for Palestinians in Gaza by tying keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. One student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. On the stage behind the president, academics unfurled a Democratic Republic of Congo flag. The country has been mired in an ongoing civil war that has plunged the nation into violence and displaced millions of people. Many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict and for greater attention in the US to the conflict as well as American aid in ending the violence.

“Thank you God for this ‘woke’ class of 2024 that is in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times,” the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said during a prayer at the start of the commencement.

President Joe Biden listens before speaking to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said at the close of his speech that it was his duty to speak on the war in Gaza and that it was important to recognize that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered.

“From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children, while calling for the release of all hostages he said. “It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.”

Biden stood and shook his hand after Fletcher finished.

Morehouse College issued a statement Sunday afternoon calling peaceful assembly “core to the Morehouse College social justice tradition” and praising the graduating class’s response to Biden’s visit.

“It is fitting that a moment of organized, peaceful activism would occur on our campus while the world is watching to continue a critical conversation,” the school said. “We are proud of the resilient class of 2024’s unity in silent protest, showing their intentionality in strategy, communication and coordination as a 412-person unit.”

The school also praised Biden for announcing a new $16 billion investment in HBCUs and for calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war.

Biden’s speech, and a separate one he is giving later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

After speaking at Morehouse in Atlanta, Biden will travel to Detroit to address an NAACP dinner.

Graduating students arrive at the Morehouse College commencement before President Joe Biden speaks, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November’s expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

President Joe Biden listens before speaking to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In Detroit, Biden was set to visit a Black-owned small business before delivering the keynote address at the NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an “uncommitted” effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state’s Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden’s visit are planned for Sunday afternoon in Dearborn. Another protest rally is expected later that evening outside Huntington Place, the dinner venue.

A tassel hangs from a mortarboard as graduating students arrive at the Morehouse College commencement before President Joe Biden speaks, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to reflect that the first name of Rev. Lea is Claybon, not Clyburn.

WABE News contributed to this report.