Valedictorian calls for 'immediate and permanent ceasefire'

Biden’s graduation speech goes uninterrupted after fears of anti-Israel protests

At historically Black college, president calls Israel-Hamas war ‘heartbreaking’, says he’s working for two-state solution; Morehouse school’s head cites ‘Palestinian Jew named Jesus’

US President Joe Biden delivers a commencement address during Morehouse College's graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)
US President Joe Biden delivers a commencement address during Morehouse College's graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

US President Joe Biden’s much-anticipated address on Sunday at the graduation ceremony of historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta concluded without any major interruptions from pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel protesters, after concerns that far-left activists would mar the speech.

Biden received applause and cheers, although in addition to students who turned their chairs around to turn their backs to him, one graduate appeared to hold up a Palestinian flag briefly and another stood and turned his back with his fist raised.

Footage from the ceremony appeared to show a generational divide, with alumni giving the president a standing ovation while members of the graduating class remained seated when he took the stage.

As pro-Palestinian protesters have shaken up campuses across the country with anti-Israel encampments and other demonstrations, including at graduation ceremonies, Biden made a point of addressing the issue the Israel-Hamas war in his remarks.

“Some of you have asked, ‘What is democracy? If we can’t stop wars that break our hearts?’ But in a democracy, we debate and dissent about America’s role in the world. I want to say this very clearly. I support peaceful, non-violent protests. Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them,” Biden said, noting that he has appointed more Black Americans to senior positions than any other US president.

In the past, Biden has spoken more critically of the anti-Israel protests, highlighting their sometimes antisemitic motivations and tactics as well as their ignoring of Hamas’s crimes, while at the same time condemning “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians”

Turning to the Israel-Hamas war more directly, Biden said, “What’s happening in Gaza and in Israel is heartbreaking. Hamas’s vicious attack on Israel, killing innocent lives and holding people hostage. I was there nine days after and saw pictures of them tying a mother and daughter in a rope, pouring kerosene on them, burning them, and watching as they died.”

The war was started on October 7 when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 252 hostages to Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and eighty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Biden’s voice then elevated. “Innocent Palestinians caught in the middle of all of this — Men, women and children, killed or displaced, in desperate need of food, water and medicine.

“There’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That’s why I call for an immediate ceasefire to stop the fighting [and to] bring the hostages home,” he said, reiterating his long-held stance to applause from the crowd. “I’ve been working on a deal as we speak, working around the clock… to get more aid into Gaza.”

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it,” he continued.

A graduating student (L) holds a Palestinian flag, and another wears a flag as they turn their back on US President Joe Biden while he delivers a commencement address during Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia on May 19, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

“I know it is angering and frustrates many of you, including my family,” Biden said. Last month, The New York Times reported that First Lady Jill Biden has been pushing the president hard to bring an end to the war.

“But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.”

“Leadership is about fighting through the most intractable problems. It’s about channeling anger, frustration, and heartbreak to find a solution. It’s about doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely,” he said, apparently referring to his policies on the war that have exposed him to harsh criticism from the far-left flank of his party over his support for Israel but also Republicans who have increasingly turned on him as he has intensified his criticism of Israel over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Biden also used the occasion to say he is making efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

His administration has moved actualizing the framework up on its agenda since the the Israel-Hamas war began after spending nearly three years stressing that a two-state solution was far-off and prioritizing more incremental progress toward its realization.

The president stressed a newer message coming from his administration in recent weeks about how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war has allowed Hamas to fill the vacuum the IDF has briefly created on the battlefield against the terror group.

“I’ve also been working around the clock for more than just [a] ceasefire. I’m working to bring the region together, working to build a lasting, durable peace,” Biden said, referring to the normalization agreement he is trying to broker between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the deal is conditioned on Israel agreeing to a pathway to a future Palestinian state — a condition that Netanyahu again rejected on Saturday.

“Because the question is — as you see what’s going on in Israel today — What after? What after Hamas? What happens then? What happens in Gaza?”

US President Joe Biden receives an honorary degree after speaking to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

He appeared to be referring to the speeches given by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz last week, demanding Netanyahu present his plans for the post-war management of Gaza.

The Israeli premier has rebuffed the calls, claiming they are largely irrelevant until Israel finishes removing Hamas from power. He has also rejected Gallant’s suggestion that the Palestinian Authority be allowed to take part in the post-war governance of Gaza — a plan backed by the US and much of the international community.

“I’m working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution — the only solution for the two people to live in peace, enjoy their dignity,” Biden added.

Morehouse was founded in 1867 to educate Black people newly liberated from slavery, and its alumni include the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. The US president has lavished attention on historically Black colleges and universities, directed billions in funding to them, and praised them as tools of enhanced economic mobility.

“Thank you God for this woke class of 2024,” Baptist Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said in his opening evocation, praising the students for their political awareness at the ceremony’s opening as Biden smiled.

The reverend cited a “Palestinian Jew named Jesus,” and said all children matter from Israelis to Palestinians and beyond.

US President Joe Biden (R) shakes hands with valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher during Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia on May 19, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

“It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip,” said Morehouse 2024 valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher. Biden applauded.

Biden stood and shook his hand after Fletcher finished. The college also awarded Biden an honorary degree.

After he accepted the honor, Biden joked: “I’m not going home,” as chants of “four more years” broke out in the audience before he left the stage. He was heading to Detroit to speak at an NAACP dinner.

Sunday’s speech comes amid of a flurry of Biden engagements focused on African American issues. Later on Sunday, he is expected to attend the Detroit NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in the competitive state of Michigan.

Morehouse sits on a leafy 66-acre (27-hectare) 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.

White House aides sounded out the mood on the Morehouse campus in recent weeks, where some staff and students had called for the president’s invitation to be rescinded over his support for Israel and their discomfort with an address during campaign season.

“I hear a lot of complaining, a lot of lamenting that he’s coming to the school. People say he’s just doing this to garner votes,” said Morehouse freshman political science major Justin Clopton. “My response to that is, yes, obviously.”

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 US officials have strongly rejected those comparisons.

But Morehouse and other historically Black colleges and universities have not been as convulsed by the sometimes violent 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.

Most Popular
read more: