Biden’s Morehouse Commencement Speech Draws on Themes of Manhood and Faith

President Biden invoked scripture and lessons from his own tragic past on Sunday in a commencement address to hundreds of young Black men at Morehouse College, saying he believes there are “extremist forces aligned against the meaning and message” of the prestigious institution.

Mr. Biden’s speech, delivered at the historically Black men’s college in Atlanta, put him directly in front of hundreds who represent a slice of the electorate that is drifting away from him over the war in Gaza and growing apathy about their choices ahead of the election. Mr. Biden used the moment to say that manhood was not about “tough talk” and “bigotry” but about calling out hate.

“Their idea of being a man is toxic,” Mr. Biden told the graduates, a reference to adversaries he did not name — but, given that his other events this weekend were focused on attacking his Republican competitor, Donald J. Trump, it was little mystery who he was talking about. “That is not you. That is not us. Being a man is about strength and respect and dignity.”

Those who stormed the Capitol with Confederate flags “are called patriots by some,” he said — a clear reference to Mr. Trump. “Not in my house.”

Mr. Biden’s speech was his first significant appearance before college students since protests over the war in Gaza began roiling campuses. For a ceremony in which students are discouraged even from decorating their caps, the signs of protest were respectful but noticeable: A small group of graduates turned to sit with their backs to Mr. Biden as he spoke, and several graduates wore the kaffiyeh, a traditional scarf associated with the Palestinians, draped over their shoulders. Some parents urged their graduating sons not to protest.

Mr. Biden, aware that many of the graduates were so angry over the war in Gaza that they turned away from him as he spoke, also called for an immediate cease-fire and said that his administration was working to secure one. He said that members of his family had been upset by the war, a group that includes Jill Biden, the first lady, who has urged her husband in private to bring a stop to it.

“What’s happening in Gaza, in Israel, is heartbreaking,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

During his 27-minute speech, Mr. Biden tried to stress to the graduates — none of whom stood for him as he took the lectern — that throughout his life he had respected and espoused the same ideas they care about.

He said he had worked throughout his life, as a public defender, senator and president, to correct inequalities. He outlined the work his administration has done that he and his advisers believe deserves more credit than it receives, including the forgiveness of large amounts of student loan debt and reducing the poverty rate for Black children.

“We know Black history is American history,” Mr. Biden said at one point, urging the crowd to “check my record,” which includes choosing the first Black female Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the first Black woman to hold the vice presidency, Kamala Harris.

By focusing on matters of adversity and strength, Mr. Biden also sought to strike a contrast with Mr. Trump not on the grounds of politics or policy but through the lessons of keeping faith in moments of hopelessness. He spoke of the death of his first wife and daughter as well as his eldest son, Beau, from brain cancer.

He told the Morehouse graduates, a class that weathered the chaos of the pandemic and the tumult of widespread protests over the police killings of Black men, that it was natural for them to question whether there was a place for them in democracy at all.

“What is democracy when Black men are being killed in the streets?” he said. “What is democracy when a trail of broken promises still leave Black communities behind? What is democracy when you have to be 10 times better than anyone else to get a fair shot?”

Repeatedly, Mr. Biden reached for religious inspiration, recalling that Jesus was buried on Friday and resurrected on Sunday, leaving Saturday as a day of hopelessness. He suggested that 2020 — the year he was elected, with its twin traumas of the Covid-19 pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd — had been one such Saturday.

At one point, Mr. Biden said, “I’ve learned there was no easy optimism but by faith, by faith you can find redemption.”

Mr. Biden, who has a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oval Office — and who is old enough to have shared his memories of Dr. King’s assassination in his speech — walked into commencement on Sunday unsure of how the crowd would receive him.

Morehouse, which was established in Atlanta in 1867, is a school whose culture is steeped in tradition. Students spend their years working toward becoming the embodiment of the Morehouse man: well traveled, well read and civically engaged. As the alma mater of Dr. King, there is also a proud history of protesting for social justice.

Mr. Biden’s visit to Morehouse drew the objections of some faculty members, alumni and students, who have voiced anger over the war in Gaza and the American government’s support for Israel. The tension drew so much attention that the school’s president, David A. Thomas, publicly warned that he would stop the commencement if graduates shouted at the president or disrupted the event.

The men of Morehouse found ways to work their opposition to the war into the ceremony. DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, the class valedictorian, took the stage with the Palestinian flag pinned on his stole and on his cap.

“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,” Mr. Fletcher said. Mr. Biden joined the crowd in standing up and clapping when Mr. Fletcher finished, and he shook the graduate’s hand.

But by the end of Mr. Biden’s speech, signs of support were visible, too. As Mr. Biden received an honorary doctorate of law, Mr. Thomas praised the president for listening to the concerns of the graduating class. And some people chanted “four more years” as Mr. Biden left the stage.

After addressing Morehouse, Mr. Biden was set to travel to Detroit to speak at a dinner hosted by the N.A.A.C.P.

Hitting two battleground states in eight hours was the clearest sign yet that Mr. Biden is serious about reintroducing himself to voters who carried him to the White House in 2020 and whose support he will need to win to stay in office for a second term.

In 2020, 95 percent of Black women and 87 percent of Black men voted for Mr. Biden, according to the Pew Research Center. But in April, only 55 percent of Black voters told Pew that they approved of his job performance. A recent poll by Ipsos and The Washington Post showed that 62 percent of Black Americans planned to vote in 2024, down from 74 percent in 2020.

In recent days, both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have traveled outside of Washington to host events geared toward bringing those voters back into the fold.

Mr. Biden’s trip to Detroit comes as the latest New York Times/Siena College poll shows him winning support from less than half of Black voters in Michigan in a five-way race. In 2020, he won more than 90 percent of Black voters in the state, exit polls show.

The war in Gaza and concerns about the economy are driving factors behind what analysts say is an increase in apathy. In Michigan, nearly nine in 10 Black voters rated the economy as being in “fair” or “poor” condition, a higher rate than white voters, the Times/Siena poll found.

Alexis Wiley, the founder of a strategic communications firm in Detroit and a former member of the Democratic National Committee, said the Biden administration had to do more to communicate its victories.

“I think that they’re finally catching up to the fact that people aren’t feeling great,” Ms. Wiley said, “and now there’s this mad dash to try to correct it.”

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Nehamas in Washington and Chevaz Clarke-Williams, Alan Blinder and Sean Keenan in Atlanta.

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