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Biden reaches out to Morehouse grads on Gaza to muted applause

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

ATLANTA (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden told Morehouse College graduates not to give up on American democracy in a somber commencement address on Sunday, while acknowledging their anger over the war in Gaza.

The speech, which would typically be a relatively low-profile event, drew scrutiny as college campuses nationwide erupted in sometimes-violent protests over Biden’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas following the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack. But the campus of Morehouse, a historically Black men’s college, remained calm throughout Biden’s speech, with only small and silent shows of protest.

Biden recounted his personal history and said he shared the concerns of the graduates over the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it. I know it angers and frustrates many of you,” he told the graduates.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that’s why I’ve called for an immediate ceasefire,” Biden said to applause.

But amid the decorous commencement, a generational divide was apparent in Atlanta as alumni and new graduates sat side-by-side. Older alumni stood, cheered and laughed along with the president at various points as current graduates sat in silence or offered polite applause.

Several students and faculty had earlier called for Biden’s invitation to speak to be revoked over his Israel policies.

Some students wore keffiyehs — the black-and-white head scarf which has become an emblem of solidarity with the Palestinian cause — tied around their gowns. A handful of students turned their backs to him in silent protest over the Gaza crisis.

Morehouse’s valedictorian also called for a permanent and immediate ceasefire, to which Biden applauded.

Biden also used the address, part of an election-year platform, to highlight his support for Black officials and his push against racism and division that he says threatens the nation’s foundation.

“It’s natural to wonder: Does the democracy you hear about actually work for you?” he said. Even so, he added, Americans must continue “to call out the poison of white supremacy, root out systemic racism. Democracy is still the way.”

Biden is seeking to sell his vision to jaded voters who approve of his policies but are not sold on the 81-year-old candidate himself, including younger Black men, as he faces a rematch against Republican Donald Trump, who has used increasingly authoritarian language and already stoked doubts about the election’s legitimacy.

Biden challenged graduates to build on their historic education to lead and fight for freedom at home. Morehouse was founded in 1867 to educate Black people newly liberated from slavery and alumni include the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Without citing Trump by name, Biden invoked the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by Trump supporters, some carrying the Civil War-era Confederate flags, as well as attacks on Black election workers, attempts to restrict voting and extremists’ rhetoric toward immigrants.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this month showed Biden nearly tied with Republican candidate Donald Trump for voters under 40, a group Biden carried by double-digit percentage points in 2020. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll last month showed that just 62% of Black voters say they are absolutely certain to vote, down from 74% roughly four years ago. Nine in 10 Black voters supported Biden in 2020, surveys found.

Sunday’s speech comes amid of a flurry of Biden actions and engagements focused on African American issues.

Biden noted the billions in funding his administration has granted historically Black colleges and universities, praising them as tools of enhanced economic mobility. Later on Sunday, he is expected to attend the Detroit NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in the competitive state of Michigan.

CAMPUS MOOD

Morehouse sits on a leafy campus near downtown Atlanta, the biggest city in Georgia, which is one of the most competitive battleground states in the 2024 race. In 2020, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Many Black men consulted in Democratic focus groups report being underwhelmed by their economic prospects and progress on issues from student loans to criminal justice reform after delivering the Democratic party control of the two houses of Congress and the White House in 2020. Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 mid-term elections.

Some Black students have drawn parallels between the experience of stateless Palestinians and historical experiences in apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South, which motivated earlier generations of protest. Israeli and U.S. officials reject those comparisons.

But Morehouse and other historically Black colleges and universities have not been as convulsed by the protests like those that led to the cancellation of graduation ceremonies at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. Many of Biden’s top aides regard the protests as not reflective of the majority view of voters.

Biden, who speaks next week to graduates at the United States Military Academy, has maintained longstanding U.S. arms support for Israel despite the mounting death toll of its campaign in Gaza.

But he has threatened to cut off aid if Israel pursues its offensive in Rafah, where many civilians are taking refuge. He has also reiterated support for a two-state solution and backed humanitarian relief for Gaza.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Alyssa Pointer and Susan Heavey; editing by Deepa Babington, Heather Timmons and Leslie Adler)

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