Morehouse defends students, faculty who turned their backs during Biden speech: ‘We are proud’

Morehouse College is praising its students and faculty after at least seven graduates and one faculty member sat with their backs turned to President Biden as he delivered his commencement address at the Atlanta school earlier Sunday.

Morehouse said “peaceful assembly is core” to the school’s “social justice tradition,” and its administration “fully supports and defends the right to peacefully protest and the expression of one’s views openly.” 

Given its most famous alumni, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse said it was “fitting that a moment of organized, peaceful, activism would occur on our campus while the world is watching to continue a critical conversation.” 

“We are proud of the resilient class of 2024’s unity in silent protest, showing their intentionality in strategy, communication, and coordination as a 412-person unit,” Morehouse said.

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The commencement came after weeks of nationwide campus protests against Israel’s war in Gaza that, according to its Health Ministry, has killed at least 35,000 Palestinians. 

Biden told the graduates of historically Black Morehouse College that he heard the voices of the protesters and that the scenes from Gaza break his heart, too. 

“I support peaceful nonviolent protest,” he told students at the all-male college, some who wore Palestinian scarves known as keffiyehs around their shoulders on top of their black graduation gowns. “Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.”

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Biden said there’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, “that’s why I’ve called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting” and bring home hostages still being held by Hamas after its militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The president commented on the Middle East near the end of a commencement address in which he also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it.

The announcement that Biden would be Morehouse’s commencement speaker drew some backlash among the faculty and those who opposed the president’s handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning administrators for inviting Biden and solicited signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

In the end, there were no disruptions of the Morehouse commencement, while applause for Biden was mostly subdued. At least seven graduates and one faculty member sat with their backs turned during Biden’s address, and another student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. Protesters near the ceremony carried signs that said “Free Palestine,” “Save the Children” and “Ceasefire Now” as police on bikes kept watch.

On stage behind the president as he spoke, academics unfurled a Congolese flag. The African country has been mired in a civil war, and many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict as well as American help in ending the violence.

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