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How Morehouse students are feeling about Biden's upcoming commencement address

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden is set to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, and student views have been mixed in the weeks leading up to his speech. Juma Sei with member station WABE reports.

JUMA SEI, BYLINE: In that lull between the last classes of the school year and the start of finals season, I meet a trio of seniors on one of the Morehouse quads - Jordan Washington, Wisler Charles and DeAngelo Fletcher. Their friend group represents a spectrum of student opinion. Washington starts.

JORDAN WASHINGTON: I don't care who speaks. I just want to walk the stage. I want to celebrate with my family, with my, like, family friends, stuff like that.

SEI: He says the discourse about Biden has eclipsed why this weekend's ceremony is so important. For a lot of the class of 2024, this will be their first real graduation because of COVID.

WASHINGTON: And now it feels like our college graduation is - I feel like it's not more so - like, people are focusing more on the speaker - what is he going to talk about, how are people going to respond to that - rather than focus on, like, what really matters, which is us, the graduates. I mean, Biden didn't do four years here. We did.

WISLER CHARLES: Am I happy about Biden? Not really. But I'm not the greatest to speak to politically because I don't follow politics 'cause it gives me a headache.

SEI: Wisler Charles also wants commencement to center his family's celebration. And that's what he told folks in his class who had asked him to join a silent protest, turning their backs on President Biden during his speech.

CHARLES: If my family wasn't coming, I would have done it. But because my family has pushed me to this point and supported me up until this point, I have an obligation to not turn my back.

SEI: But not everyone at Morehouse feels the same. DeAngelo Fletcher is the next to share his opinion. He understands where his friends are coming from.

DEANGELO FLETCHER: But I think it's kind of insulting that our star alumnus is Dr. King, but Biden has been on a tirade in the Middle East, giving billions and billions of dollars to foreign countries.

SEI: Fletcher isn't the only Morehouse man who feels this strongly. Hundreds of Morehouse alums signed a letter calling on the administration to rescind their invitation to the president. They also say that inviting Biden isn't in line with Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence.

Now, the Biden-Harris campaign said the president has delivered for Black Americans and that there's no better speaker for the university's commencement. Biden has also said that he shares the goal of a lasting peace in the Middle East. As for Fletcher, he doesn't know if he would protest Biden himself. He's the youngest of seven and, like his two friends, wants to focus on his family and graduation.

FLETCHER: Then again, I feel like it's our duty as a younger generation, as college students, as people who have a voice on campus. You know, colleges tend to be safe spaces for protest and for, you know, these types of conversations.

DAVID THOMAS: This is one of those moments that Morehouse is called to.

SEI: That's Morehouse president David Thomas. He says he never considered uninviting President Biden. In his words, that would make Morehouse a plain, vanilla institution.

THOMAS: If Morehouse cannot hold the tensions that threaten to divide our country, then no place on the planet can hold those tensions.

SEI: And there is a camp of students who feel the same. Ronald David is a rising junior, so he says when he graduates, he wants the speaker to be somebody Black or just someone he can better relate to. But David's still interested to see Biden on campus. He thinks the president might learn something from what folks call the Morehouse mystique.

RONALD DAVID: Just because we don't necessarily resonate or agree with Joe Biden or think that he's the best speaker - it's important not to, you know, shun him or say that he isn't, you know, the best speaker or shouldn't be speaking and instead, you know, welcome that unity.

SEI: David and the rest of the Morehouse community are waiting to see what happens when Biden takes the stage at graduation. The historic college is one of a kind, and its student body - young, Black men - is a group that Democrats need to show up for the November election. For NPR News, I'm Juma Sei in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.
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