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Biden calls Gaza ‘humanitarian crisis’; some Morehouse grads turn their backs

Biden calls Gaza ‘humanitarian crisis’; some Morehouse grads turn their backs

ATLANTA — US President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, receiving applause and cheers but also spurring some students to turn their backs to him as his backing of Israel riles college graduations across the country.

Biden's address at Morehouse College, a historically Black men's college in Atlanta, is part of an election-year platform to repair bonds with young Black men and address the anger over his position on Israel.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that’s why I’ve called for an immediate ceasefire," Biden said to applause.

"I know it angers and frustrates many of you including in my family," he said.

Biden was largely uninterrupted by protests that have shut down graduations elsewhere, although in addition to students who turned their chairs around to turn their backs to him, one graduate appeared to hold up a Palestinian flag briefly and an audience member stood and turned their back with their fist raised.

Biden also made remarks more typical of traditional commencement addresses, saying: Education "makes you free. And a Morehouse education makes you fearless."

Some graduates wore keffiyehs—the black-and-white head scarf which has become an emblem of solidarity with the Palestinian cause—tied around their gowns, while the valedictorian called for a permanent and immediate ceasefire.

Israel's invasion of Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, youth discontent with the Democratic incumbent and a close 2024 race have contributed to an unusually high profile for what is normally a platitude-laden speech of encouragement for new graduates.

This year, Biden is hoping for buzz-worthy, breakthrough moments that can sell his vision to jaded voters who approve of his policies but are not sold on the 81-year-old candidate himself. Campaign officials have flagged signs of diminished enthusiasm among younger Black men in particular.

Morehouse was founded in 1867 to educate Black people newly liberated from slavery, and its alumni include the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. The US president has lavished attention on historically Black colleges and universities, directed billions in funding to them and praised them as tools of enhanced economic mobility.

"Thank you God for this woke class of 2024,” Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said in his opening evocation, praising the students for their political awareness at the ceremony's opening as Biden smiled.

The reverend cited a "Palestinian Jew named Jesus," and said all children matter from Israelis to Palestinians and beyond.

"It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip," said Morehouse 2024 valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher. Biden applauded.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this month showed Biden tied with Republican candidate Donald Trump for voters under 40, a group Biden carried by double-digit percentage points in 2020. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll last month showed that just 62% of Black voters say they are absolutely certain to vote, down from 74% roughly four years ago. Nine in 10 Black voters supported Biden in 2020, surveys found.

Sunday's speech comes amid of a flurry of Biden engagements focused on African American issues. Later on Sunday, he is expected to attend the Detroit NAACP's Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in the competitive state of Michigan.

Mood on campus

Morehouse sits on a leafy 66-acre (27 hectare) campus near downtown Atlanta, the biggest city in Georgia, which is one of the most competitive battleground states in the 2024 race. In 2020, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.

White House aides sounded out the mood on the Morehouse campus in recent weeks, where some staff and students had called for the president's invitation to be rescinded over his support for Israel and their discomfort with an address during campaign season.

"I hear a lot of complaining, a lot of lamenting that he's coming to the school. People say he's just doing this to garner votes," said Morehouse freshman political science major Justin Clopton. "My response to that is, yes, obviously."

Many Black men consulted in Democratic focus groups report being underwhelmed by their economic prospects and progress on issues from student loans to criminal justice reform after delivering the Democratic party control of the two houses of Congress and the White House in 2020. Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 mid-term elections.

Some Black students have drawn parallels between the experience of stateless Palestinians and historical experiences in apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South, which motivated earlier generations of protest. Israeli and US officials reject those comparisons.

But Morehouse and other historically Black colleges and universities have not been as convulsed by the sometimes violent protests like those that led to the cancellation of graduation ceremonies at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. Many of Biden's top aides regard the protests as not reflective of the majority view of voters.

Biden, who speaks next week to graduates at the United States Military Academy, has maintained longstanding US arms support for Israel despite the mounting death toll of its campaign in Gaza.

But he has threatened to cut off aid if Israel pursues its offensive in Rafah, where many civilians are taking refuge. He has also reiterated support for a two-state solution and backed humanitarian relief for Gaza. — Reuters