Biden delivers address at Morehouse College amid anger over Gaza war

The historically Black college is one of several US universities to hold protests demanding an end to the killings in Gaza.

Joe Biden delivers a speech at Morehouse College
US President Joe Biden addresses Morehouse College graduates during a commencement ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia, May 19 [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

Joe Biden has sought to address anger on United States university campuses over his support for Israel amid the war in Gaza, as the US president delivered a graduation speech at a historically Black college attended by Martin Luther King Jr.

Biden’s graduation speech on Sunday at Morehouse College in Atlanta, in the election battleground state of Georgia, aimed to encourage Black and young voters to support him ahead of US elections in November.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Biden said in his address on Sunday morning, adding that he is “working on a deal” to end the fighting and “build a lasting and durable peace”.

“Leadership is about fighting through the most intractable problem. It’s about channeling anger, frustration and heartbreak to find a solution. It’s about doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely,” he said.

The US president is expected to face a tight election contest against his Republican rival and predecessor Donald Trump, and he is trying to appeal to key segments of his Democratic Party base that have been angered over his Gaza policy.

Biden continues to face widespread criticism – particularly from progressives, youth and Black and other voters of colour – over his unwavering support for Israel amid the Gaza war.

More than 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israeli attacks since the conflict began in early October.

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from a protest for Gaza about 1km (less than a mile) from Morehouse College on Sunday morning, said the demonstrators believe Biden should not have been delivering the commencement address because of his Middle East policies.

Students had called on the school to cancel Biden’s speech over his support for Israel.

“Morehouse College has a history of social justice,” Fisher said.

“Its most famous alumnus is Dr Martin Luther King, who of course talked about how there should be equality throughout the world and how it was important that politicians did always what was right, rather than what brought them votes.”

Photos from the commencement ceremony, during which Biden received an honorary degree, showed students and faculty wearing keffiyehs. Some turned their backs to the US president as he spoke.

Morehouse College valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher had a Palestinian flag affixed to his graduation cap. Fletcher on Sunday called for “an immediate and permanent ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip.

“Hear the people of this world, sing the song of righteous justice,” he said during his valedictorian speech.

A Morehouse College graduate holds a Palestinian flag during Biden's speech
A Morehouse College graduate holds a Palestinian flag while Biden speaks on May 19 [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

The White House last week sent a senior official to meet students and faculty members at Morehouse to discuss the objections to Biden’s speech, according to US broadcaster NBC News.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Friday said Biden would try to use the speech as “an opportunity to lift up and to give an important message to our future leaders”.

Bernice King, the civil icon’s daughter, told Bloomberg in an interview last week that Black voters are “very disgruntled right now with the president” and that Biden risks losing a considerable share of their votes.

The civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had said Biden should not speak at Morehouse.

“His team should have made the decision that this is not the right time to take the spotlight from Morehouse students to the president and his bad policy on Gaza,” CAIR’s Edward Ahmed Mitchell said.

The controversy over the Morehouse speech came after weeks of major protests at US universities, including the Atlanta college, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment from Israel.

Biden said earlier this month that “order must prevail” on campuses, and police have made thousands of arrests across the US while attacking student encampments.

Protesters were arrested during a violent police crackdown in New York’s Brooklyn on Saturday, while hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Washington, DC to demand an end to bloodshed in Gaza and the arming of Israel by the US.

The protests, which have spread globally, are continuing amid the Israeli ground invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, along with a deadly incursion into Jabalia in the north.

Meanwhile, Israel is allowing very little aid into the enclave, and the US is proceeding with a much-criticised plan to deliver humanitarian assistance via a temporary floating pier.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies