Morehouse College not rescinding Biden's commencement invitation amid some criticism over handling of Israel-Hamas war

The president's speech "should be about our students," a college official said.

April 30, 2024, 12:51 PM

Morehouse College will still bring President Joe Biden to speak at the school's commencement ceremony in Atlanta next month, amid some complaints about the invitation from faculty members, students and alumni over Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

"There are of course opinions saying that we should rescind the invitation," Morehouse's provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, Kendrick Brown, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. "But there are a number of individuals who recognize this opportunity and the prominence of the speaker and an opportunity for Morehouse to highlight its mission and to be able to use this venue to ask important questions."

While Biden will be making his speech in an election year in a key swing state in front of a key voting bloc -- Morehouse is one of the country's most famous historically Black colleges -- Brown maintained that the commencement invitation, first extended last year, isn't about politics.

"The reason that we invited President Biden here, the reason we invite any speaker to come to commencement, is that we believe they have something to say to encourage our graduates as they go out into the world," Brown told the Journal-Constitution. "I hope this speech would not be about making a case or making a campaign. It should be about our students."

Controversy began to bubble up in the Morehouse community in recent days, amid a broader period of protests on U.S. college campuses over Israel's war in Gaza, sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attacks.

While Biden has sought to balance sympathy for Palestinian civilians in Gaza with support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas, he has faced continuing criticism from younger and more progressive voters, particularly, for America's backing of Israel's operations, even as the White House has denounced some of the Israelis' actions.

More than 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there. International observers have also been warning for months of an unfolding humanitarian disaster in the territory.

Hamas' October terror attack killed 1,200 people in Israel, Israeli officials have said.

President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022, in Atlanta.
Megan Varner/Getty Images

Morehouse faculty members convened with the college's president, David Thomas, last week to express concerns over Biden being the 2024 commencement speaker at May's graduation, a source who was in the meeting told ABC News. (Morehouse did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the meeting.)

Even before Biden was officially announced to be the upcoming speaker, last week, "concerned faculty" had been reaching out to Morehouse leaders, according to a letter Brown sent on April 19 to the school community in response to their issues.

The faculty source said that of the 160 people subsequently invited to the hourlong virtual meeting with Thomas, the school's president, on Thursday, about 75 attended and about five people spoke up with concerns. One faculty member asked whether there would be a penalty for silently protesting and Thomas jokingly replied -- only if it were during the commencement, according to the faculty source.

For faculty, Thomas implied that they didn't need to show up to graduation if they disapproved, according to the source who was in the virtual meeting. However, faculty emphasized that they would like to show support for their students whether they're graduating or protesting, the source added.

Thomas also held a heated town hall with some Morehouse students on April 23, two days before the faculty meeting. Bradley Morrison, a 20-year-old sophomore at Morehouse, was one of the dozens present. He told ABC News that he felt Thomas was "dismissive" of the students' concerns.

Morrison said that if his peers decide to protest Biden's speech, he will join in out of solidarity.

Some Morehouse alumni have also circulated a letter, obtained by the Associated Press, that condemned Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war and demanded Thomas rescind his invitation to deliver the commencement speech.

Morrison, the Morehouse sophomore, said he feels that the graduating seniors deserve an "impactful" speaker that captures an "impactful" class.

"It should have been an impactful Black man speaker coming to speak," he said. "I just don't believe ... that [Biden's] the best fit."

President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022, in Atlanta.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

This would not be Biden's first time visiting Morehouse as president. He, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, which includes Morehouse, in 2022.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in response to the controversy that she "understands" it's a "different moment in time," but that Biden "always takes this moment as a special time to deliver a message -- an encouraging message, a message that's hopefully uplifting."

Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that the president had been in touch with Morehouse officials and is "looking forward" to speaking.

Cedric Richmond, the Biden campaign co-chair and a Morehouse alumnus, told ABC News in a statement that "given the way the Biden-Harris Administration has delivered for Black America … there is no better speaker for this year's commencement ceremony than President Biden."

Brown, the college's provost, responded on Monday to some of the claims that inviting the president makes the school "complicit" in Israel's military campaign.

"From the perspective of Morehouse College, we have a strong, enduring commitment to social justice. We also have a commitment to ensuring that Morehouse students, faculty and staff in our larger community can engage with the highest leaders in government to be able to voice their viewpoints," he said. "That does not always mean they're going to be in agreement with those leaders."