'I just want to graduate': Morehouse seniors want focus on students -- not Biden -- ahead of president's commencement speech

Some seniors feared Biden will draw attention from their own celebrations.

May 17, 2024, 5:17 PM

A few hundred seniors at Atlanta's Morehouse College gathered into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on campus on Friday to take their senior class photo -- just days before President Joe Biden is set to deliver their commencement speech, a controversial and high-stakes event that comes as the president works to make inroads with a key voting bloc in the swing state: young Black men.

Last month's announcement that Biden would give the commencement address on Sunday led to threats of protests because of frustration over Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Now, many of the seniors tell ABC News that they want the event to focused on the graduates -- not on the president.

Students like sociology major Marq Riggins are frustrated over the run-up to Biden's arrival, which, according to Riggins, included the seniors on campus having to move to other dorms for security reasons.

"All of it shows that the school is more concerned about leading its sort of political agenda before it is celebrating the students that make the school worth something," said sociology major Marq Riggins.

He, along with other seniors at the historically Black college for men, expressed frustration to ABC News over the commotion the president's appearance was causing and how it was drawing attention away from their own celebrations.

PHOTO: A senior in his mortar is seen on the campus of Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA,  May 10, 2024.
A senior in his mortar is seen on the campus of Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 2024.
Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"It's pretty disrespectful to the student body to take this ceremony that's supposed to be celebrating them and reduce it to like a political campaign," Riggins said.

Flyers have circulated around campus encouraging students and faculty at commencement to avoid clapping for the president during his speech, and to turn their back on Biden while he's speaking.

Biden has been huddling with his senior advisors all week, preparing for his speech.

PHOTO: A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA,July 18, 2015.
A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA,July 18, 2015.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The White House on Friday stressed that Biden understands how consequential his visit is: "He's been diligently working on this, and taking this very seriously, and wants to obviously hit the right tone, meet the moment," said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

The White House has been making a concerted effort to reach out to the students in preparation of potential protests that could reflect badly on the president, especially during an election year as he works to connect with young Black voters in the swing state. Biden beat out former President Donald Trump in Georgia in 2020 -- albeit narrowly. The win marked the first time in nearly 30 years that Georgia went to a Democratic presidential candidate.

Stephen Benjamin, the White House's public engagement director, met with leaders on the campus last Friday where they expressed concerns over what is happening in the Middle East. In a briefing on Thursday, Benjamin said that the president "is very focused on centering these young men with [what] this, this transition in life, means to them, so we [will] listen closely."

Earlier this week, Morehouse President David A. Thomas told CNN that "what we won't allow is disruptive behavior that prevents the ceremony or services from proceeding in a manner that those in attendance can partake and enjoy."

He told CNN that he would "cease" the ceremony "on the spot" should any individual have to be taken out of the commencement in zip ties by the police.

ABC News Senior White House Correspondent asked Jean-Pierre if Biden is prepared for this possibility, she said that "he will respect the peaceful protesters."

"This will be a moving commencement address," Jean-Pierre added. "You will hear directly from the president on how he sees the future of this country and also the community they represent … he sees this as an opportunity to lift up and to give important message to our future leaders."

Caleb Tsegaye, a Morehouse senior, took Thomas' statement as a warning to students who were planning any type of protest.

"Hearing that from your president, and your big day is only a couple of days away, that's more-so like, 'Oh no, what is going to happen at this commencement other than us celebrating other students?'" Tsegaye said.

Many seniors in the class of 2024 didn't get a high school graduation in 2020 because of the pandemic, and many said the possibility of not getting another one seemed like a worthy reason to sit out on this movement -- regardless of how they feel about the president.

"I don't agree with what he's doing, especially in Palestine, but I spent a lot of money here, and I just want to graduate," said senior Eric Uwu.

A student who wished to remain anonymous said they want the president to share a message that matters to them.

"We prefer somebody who would have something more significant to say to the students, something we can relate to other than the importance of voting rights and things we've typically heard before."

PHOTO: Benjamin G, Brawley Hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, July 18, 2015.
Benjamin G, Brawley Hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, July 18, 2015.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Amid sliding poll numbers in the Black community, the Biden administration recently announced a new record in federal funding and investments in HBCUs totaling more than $16 billion from Fiscal Years 2021 through current available data for FY 2024.

The Biden campaign sent out a memo highlighting the president's contribution to the Black community, saying they will not "parachute into these communities at the last minute, expecting their vote."

The president will be spending the week interacting with prominent Black organizations, including a Friday meeting with the Divine Nine, a collection of Black sororities and fraternities, and a stop at the NAACP Detroit Branch's 69th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner after his speech at Morehouse on Sunday.

ABC News' Selina Wang and Fritz Farrow contributed to this report.

Related Topics