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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden trumpets progress for Black Americans at Morehouse College

President Joe Biden receives an honorary doctorate at the Morehouse College commencement on Sunday in Atlanta.  (Elijah Nouvelage)
By Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Holly Bailey Washington Post

DETROIT – President Biden pitched himself as a leader who is “breaking down doors” for Black Americans during a closely watched commencement speech on Sunday at Morehouse College in Atlanta and an evening speech in Detroit to try to make inroads with a constituency that has drifted away from him in recent polls.

Before Biden spoke at Morehouse, the biggest question was whether his words would be interrupted by protests, like the ones that have sprung up on college campuses across the country. But instead of a loud rebuke, Biden was met with polite, if measured, applause by the more than 400 graduating seniors and their families, and no major demonstrations.

He focused his speeches on what he sees as his record of improving the lives of Black Americans, stressing that the strides would stop if Donald Trump were elected, a theme to which he returned throughout the day. Sunday capped several days when Biden made an effort to draw on Black institutions and pivotal moments in Black history to contextualize the role his administration has played in the fight for racial equity. Those advancements, he said, could be jeopardized if voters choose Trump in November.

“Instead of forcing you to prove you’re 10 times better, we’re breaking down doors so you have 100 times more opportunities – good-paying jobs you can raise a family on in your neighborhood, capital to start small businesses, loans to buy homes, health insurance, prescription drugs, housing that’s more affordable,” Biden said at Morehouse.

A handful of students and faculty members at the ceremony turned their backs on Biden as he gave the keynote speech, a silent protest of the president’s support of Israel’s war in Gaza. As many as six students could be seen seated with their backs to Biden at one point, one with a fist raised in the air. At least one faculty member appeared to be doing the same thing.

Biden recognized the protests and said he respected them. “Let me be clear: I support peaceful, nonviolent protest. Your voices should be heard, and I promise I hear them,” he said.

Tensions have simmered on Morehouse’s campus in recent weeks as groups of students, faculty and alumni at this historically Black, all-male institution demanded that Biden’s invitation be rescinded over his support of Israel. Many worried that allowing Biden to speak in this moment would mar the school’s reputation and be antithetical to the teachings of its most famous graduate, Martin Luther King Jr.

Both Georgia and Michigan are key battleground states, and polls point to a closely contested election.

Biden touted historic investments in historically Black colleges and universities like Morehouse and highlighted the diversity he has put in place at the highest levels of government. He said he was drawn into politics by the example of King, a bust of whom sits in the Oval Office.

Biden also sought to contrast himself with Trump, his probable opponent in November’s election, saying the former president and other Republicans would dismantle the progress that Black Americans have made in the past three years.

Jerald Butler, 21, who graduated Sunday with a degree in art, said in an interview that he was “not happy at all” thinking about the upcoming presidential election and that Biden’s Morehouse appearance had done nothing to change his lack of enthusiasm or his indecision.

“It was a nice gesture, of course, but I kind of already knew he was going to come in and give a performative speech regarding the election under the guise of pushing us forward to the future and doing our best,” Butler said, adding, “It’s kind of a continuous pattern that the Democrats usually do when they need the Black vote, and then they disappear. It’s kind of upsetting, but it is what it is.”

A few hours later, in Detroit, Biden faced a much friendlier crowd.

He was the keynote speaker at the Detroit NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner and took the stage to chants of “four more years” before introducing himself as “a lifetime member of the NAACP.”

And he almost immediately launched into a list of things his administration has delivered for Black Americans: Historic lows of Black unemployment and historic highs of African Americans with access to health insurance. He told the crowd the racial wealth gap was its lowest in two decades.

“All that progress is at risk. Trump is trying to make everyone forget how dark everything was while he was President,” Biden said. ” … Ask yourself, if he’s elected, who do you think he’ll put on the Supreme Court?”

In Detroit and Atlanta, he reminded audiences of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to stop the certification of the 2020 election results.

“Insurrectionists who storm the Capitol with Confederate flags are called ‘patriots’ by some. Not in my house,” Biden said at Morehouse. He also reminded the Morehouse audience that “Black police officers, Black veterans protecting the Capitol were called another word, as you’ll recall.”

In Detroit, he implied Trump’s reaction to the attacks was motivated by racial bias. “What do you think he would have done if on Jan. 6, Black Americans had stormed the capital?” Biden asked.

Biden has spent most of the past week intensifying his outreach to Black voters, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, as recent polls show softening support from the demographic. Some Black voters are saying they are inclined to not vote at all, and many are less enthusiastic about voting for Biden than they were four years ago.

On Thursday, Biden met with plaintiffs in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation in the United States. On Friday, he met with members of the “Divine Nine” historically Black sororities and fraternities.

A day before that, during a speech marking the 70th anniversary of Brown, Biden said Trump and his allies would curb voting rights and “gut” affirmative action on college campuses.

The threat of demonstrations and a potentially public rebuke of Biden made his trip to Atlanta a closely watched one. As commencement Sunday approached, some activists engaged in demonstrations and “die-ins.” On Sunday, outside of Morehouse, sign-waving protesters marched as Biden spoke.

The college’s president, David Thomas, had said he would halt commencement exercises on the spot if students, faculty or others disrupted the president’s appearance. On the day of commencement, police blocked off streets as far as two blocks from campus, blunting the chance that any chants or other sounds of protest would reach Biden’s ears, or anyone else’s.

Biden did get some cheers of support from the audience in Atlanta. After he received an honorary doctorate, he smiled and pointed at someone in the audience, joking, “I’m not going home.” Some in the audience chanted: “Four more years!”

Still, there were multiple references to the Israel-Gaza war. Several students and at least one faculty member wore Palestinian scarves as they were seated. In his opening prayer, the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr., a pastor from California, alluded to the plight of Palestinians.

Valedictorian DeAngelo Fletcher called for a cease-fire.

“It is important to recognize that both sides have suffered heavy casualties in the wake of October 7,” he said during his remarks. ” … It is my sense as a Morehouse man, nay, as a human being, to call for an immediate and a permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.”

Biden himself talked about the war, saying he recognizes the ongoing humanitarian crisis, has called for an immediate cease-fire and believes in a two-state solution.

But he said he recognizes that feelings are intense on all sides of the issue and that there are no easy answers.

“It’s one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it,” he said of the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

He added that the graduates may find themselves facing similarly intractable problems as Morehouse men, called to be servants and leaders in their communities.

“I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family. But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. Breaks mine as well,” he said. “Leadership is about facing the most intractable problems, it’s about challenging anger, frustration and heartbreak to find a solution by doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely.”