Biden's Morehouse Graduation Invitation is Sparking Backlash, Complicating Election-Year Appearance

ATLANTA (AP) -- President Joe Biden will be the commencement speaker at Morehouse College in Georgia, giving the Democrat a key spotlight on one of the nation's preeminent historically Black campuses but potentially exposing him to uncomfortable protests as he seeks reelection against former President Donald Trump.

The White House confirmed Tuesday that Biden would speak May 19 at the alma mater of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and then address the graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 25.

The Morehouse announcement has drawn some backlash among the school's faculty and supporters who are critical of Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war. That could put the White House and Biden's reelection campaign in a difficult position as the president works to shore up the racially diverse coalition that propelled him to the Oval Office.

By Tuesday afternoon, some Morehouse alumni were circulating an online letter that condemns the administration's invitation to Biden and seeking signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press, claimed Biden's approach to Israel effectively supports genocide in Gaza and runs counter to the pacifism that King expressed with his opposition to the Vietnam War.

"In inviting President Biden to campus, the college affirms a cruel standard that complicity in genocide merits no sanction from the institution that produced one of the towering advocates for nonviolence of the twentieth century," the letter states, emphasizing King's stance that "war is a hell that diminishes" humanity as a whole. "If the college cannot affirm this noble tradition of justice by rescinding its invitation to President Biden, then the college should reconsider its attachment to Dr. King."

Late last week, before the school and the White House formally announced commencement plans, Morehouse Provost Kendrick Brown, Thomas' top lieutenant, sent an email to all faculty acknowledging concerns about "rumors" and affirming that the school issued the invitation to Biden last September. That would have been before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, spurring the sustained counter-offensive that the Morehouse alumni letter called an act of genocide against Palestinians. Brown's email did not reference anything about the Middle East conflict.

Brown invited faculty to an online forum, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, to discuss the matter. But, he added: "Please know going into this conversation that the College does not plan to rescind its accepted invitation to President Biden."

Morehouse officials have not responded to an Associated Press inquiry.

Asked about the concerns from some faculty members, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said Biden is eager to speak at the school and added: "commencements are about the graduates, their families and their loved ones; about celebrating the accomplishments of the graduates."

"I'm not going to weigh in on processes happening at Morehouse, but he looks forward to going there and celebrating with the graduates," Bates said.

Earlier Tuesday, Thomas released a statement to that, like the provost's faculty letter, highlighted the September timing of the invitation to Biden.

Thomas said Morehouse officials "eagerly anticipate" the president's visit, which he called "a reminder of our institution's enduring legacy and impact, as well as our continued commitment to excellence, progress and positive change."

The Rev. Stephen Green, pastor of the St. Luke AME Church in Harlem and an author of the alumni letter, said in an interview that his group has reached out to several Morehouse trustees and hopes to speak with Thomas. Green, who graduated in 2014, called the effort part of a "common thread of protest and activism in the Morehouse tradition" of social and political engagement.

"We hope this would send a strong message that we are serious about the values were were taught," Green said, adding that he wants to see Biden forcefully advocate for a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Beyond any dissatisfaction over Israel, polling suggests Biden may have work to do with Black Americans generally. More than half of Black adults approve of how he is handling his job as president, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in March, but that's down significantly from when he took office and 94% approved of his performance.

Biden has increasingly encountered protests this year from progressives who assert that he is too supportive of Israel. The issue has proven vexing for the president. He has long joined the U.S. foreign policy establishment in embracing Israel as an indispensable Middle East ally. Yet he also has criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for mounting civilian deaths in Gaza and told him that future U.S. aid depends on Israel taking steps to protect civilians.

The approach has left Biden with vocal critics to his left and right at a time when he has little margin for error in battleground states, including Georgia, that are expected to decide his rematch with Trump.

Biden's speech at Morehouse will mark the second consecutive spring that the president has spoken to the graduating class of a historically Black school. In 2023, he delivered the commencement address at Howard University. The Washington, D.C., school is the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold that office. Morehouse, a private all-male school that is part of the multi-campus Atlanta University Center, also is the alma mater of Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia's first Black U.S. senator.

Warnock, who also is senior pastor of King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, sidestepped any consternation on campus.

"I could not be more thrilled and honored to see President Biden return to our great state," the senator said in a statement. "I know the president will have a timely, poignant, forward-looking message for the men of Morehouse."

The controversy threatens to overshadow the policy priorities that Biden and Democrats have highlighted for months on HBCU campuses around the country. Harris and Cabinet members have spoken on several campuses. Among other policy achievements and priorities, the White House touts increases in federal money support for HBCUs; Biden's efforts to forgive up to $10,000 in student loan burden per borrower and increase Pell Grants for low-income students; energy investments to combat the climate crisis, and Democrats' support for abortion rights and decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Warnock, in his reaction to Biden's invitation, played up his work with the president "to address the high costs of higher education."

Reflecting the nation's overall racial gaps in income and net worth, Black college students are disproportionately dependent on Pell Grants, which typically cover only a fraction of college costs, and student loans. According to Federal Reserve data, about 1 out of 3 Black households has student loan debt, compared to about 1 in 5 white households. The average Black borrower also is carrying about $10,000 more in debt than the average white borrower. Additionally, federal statistics show about 60% of Black undergraduates receive Pell Grants, compared to about 40% of the overall undergraduate population and a third of white students.

In 2020, Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes over Trump out of about 5 million ballots cast. The combined enrollment at Morehouse and its adjoining schools that make up the Atlanta University Center is about 9,000 students. Biden's margin in Wisconsin was less than 21,000 votes. The president had more comfortable margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania but cannot afford to lose Black support across the metro areas of Detroit and Philadelphia.

Among states Trump won, Biden is targeting North Carolina, which has a notable Black college student population. Trump's margin there was about 75,000 votes.