Did Biden’s Morehouse graduation speech break tension with Black voters?

President Joe Biden used the HBCU commencement stage to speak to multiple generations of his Black constituency. Whether it broke through or not depends on who you ask.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Morehouse College commencement on Sunday, May 19, in Atlanta, Georgia. In his message, the president weaved together a message of assurance over the war — which sparked outrage on college campuses across the country — and reminders of who he is and what he has been able to do for Black communities. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Through emotive appeals and, at times, humor, President Joe Biden’s commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday sought to inspire and celebrate the Class of 2024 while appealing to a crucial constituency needed for his reelection: Black voters.

The president’s audience extended far beyond the 414 young Black male graduates, some of whom silently protested Biden over his administration’s policy on the Israel war in Gaza by sitting with their backs turned and adorning their caps and gowns with Palestinian flags and kaffiyeh scarves. Biden also appealed to the graduates’ families of multigenerational Black Americans, and potentially millions more who tuned in. 

Biden touts his ‘Black’ record

In a 27-minute speech, the president weaved together a message of assurance over the war — which sparked outrage on college campuses across the country — and reminders of who he is and what he has been able to accomplish for Black communities.

“Nobody’s naive here. You’re in the middle of a campaign season, and campaigns are incredibly important opportunities to highlight your successes,” said Jamal Simmons, a former communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris. “Many of these young people, many African-Americans, voted for the president in the last election. So consider it a report card that he’s giving them on what they voted for and how he’s done to achieve the goal.”

“The opponents of the president are very focused on trying to take down his record,” Simmons told theGrio, “so if Joe Biden is not telling his own success story, who will?”

With less than six months until Election Day on Nov. 5 and amid national polls indicating lagged support among Black voters, it was no surprise that Biden used the stage at the prestigious HBCU in the battleground state of Georgia to highlight that his administration is “investing more money than ever in Black families and Black communities.”

Biden touted the billions of dollars going into Black neighborhoods for initiatives such as “reconnecting Black neighborhoods cut off by old highways and decades of disinvestment,” removing lead pipes so Black children “can drink clean water” and “delivering affordable high-speed Internet so no child has to sit in their parent’s car or do their homework in a parking lot outside of McDonald’s.” 

Touting investments in Black small businesses and loans for homeownership, the president told the Morehouse community: “Instead of forcing you to prove you’re 10 times better, we’re breaking down doors so you have 100 times more opportunities.”

Biden’s decision to address the concerns of young Americans at Morehouse – the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – was no accident. Aside from their outrage over the Middle East war, young Black voters don’t know Biden well or what his record is, said Simmons, a 1993 graduate of Morehouse, who conducted a focus group with students prior to Sunday’s commencement.

“It’s important for him to flesh out the picture that they’re gonna get of him because the algorithms online are certainly serving the negative information about Joe Biden pretty regularly,” he said. 

Biden gets personal and draws laughter

President Joe Biden (second from left) poses with Morehouse College President David A. Thomas (second from right) and others at the Morehouse College commencement on May 19 in Atlanta. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Biden shared his rise to politics and his personal journey with grief, being inspired by King to become a public defender and eventually being elected to the Senate before losing his wife and young daughter in a deadly car crash in 1972. 

“Authenticity always resonates with voters and with everyday people,” said Anthony Coley, a legal and political analyst and former Biden-Harris administration official. “My hope is that the deeper we get into the campaign season, the people around him will create opportunities for that real person – the Joe they know – to break through in real ways.”

Biden also drew some laughter, like when the president said he had “no doubt that a Morehouse man will be president one day,” but added the caveat: “Just after an AKA from Howard.” It was an obvious praise of Harris, whom he hailed as “tough.”

“I’m glad to see the audience react in a way, and I thought it was a good lighthearted moment,” said Coley. “I agree with him. She is tough, and she would make a great president.”

Simmons said the vice president is “incredibly important” to Biden politically, adding, “They are stronger as a team. There are people who like Joe Biden who may not particularly like Kamala Harris, and vice versa … but when you put the two of them together, it’s chocolate and peanut butter. Everybody loves that.”

Biden addresses the elephant in the room

Despite the risk of protests, the president did not shy away from the outrage over the war in Gaza. He told graduates: “I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family.  But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.” 

“Leadership is about fighting through the most intractable problems,” he maintained. “It’s about doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely.”

Rather than disrupt the president’s address, the Morehouse Class of 2024 instead chose to protest peacefully.

“Black men and Morehouse students know that the rules in America are not the same to them,” said Simmons. “Speaking up in a constructive way has been the model of Morehouse protest as long as the school has been minting new leaders, and certainly since the 1950s, when Martin Luther King came on the national scene.” 

Coley, who is also a Morehouse alum, told theGrio, “I’m impressed with how they handled this moment and how they didn’t allow themselves to be props or potted plants.”

But not everyone was moved by the president’s commencement speech. Edward Mitchell, a Morehouse alum and national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told theGrio: “The president’s words have gotten better in the past few weeks, but his policy is not fundamentally changed, and that’s the problem.”

“The president tried to neutralize some of the criticism by indicating he supported some sort of ceasefire, expressing sympathy with the Palestinian people,” said Mitchell, who participated in peaceful protests on Sunday outside of the campus. “The problem is that his words didn’t go far enough, and his words are contradicted by his administration’s continued delivery of military weaponry and money” to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Graduating students opposed to U.S. policy on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza turned their backs on President Joe Biden as he delivered a commencement address during Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony on Sunday in Atlanta. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Race to the White House continues

With the November election nearing, Biden and Harris must work hard to win over Black voters. 

T. Kevin Olasanoye, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, told theGrio he has “every expectation” that Biden will replicate his 2020 performance with Black voters with 90% or better. 

“The alternative is vote for Donald Trump. You do that, and you’re a Black person in America, I don’t know how you feel more confident about the country that you live in,” said Olasanoye. 

He predicted that as voters see more of Trump, their decision will become clearer. 

“Donald Trump isn’t on TV every day like he was in 2020,” he noted. “People are not seeing him say or do the outrageous things that we all know that he’s going to do once he gets out of that courtroom in Manhattan.”

Simmons said that hopefully, Biden’s Morehouse commencement speech showed Black voters that “they wouldn’t just be voting for the lesser of two evils because [Biden’s] not evil.”

However, Mitchell warned that the Gaza war that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians will be top of mind for many, including young and Black voters.

“I expect [them] … to continue making all candidates for elected office know that they support an end to the genocide of violence in Gaza,” he said. “They want their elected officials to also support an end to that violence. That’s from the top down — from the presidency to Congress.”

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