Morehouse College Braces For Potential Protests Ahead Of President Biden’s Commencement Speech

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas stated that he would immediately halt commencement ceremonies “on the spot” rather than permitting police to remove student protesters in zip ties during President Joe Biden’s graduation speech.

President Biden’s scheduled commencement speech on Sunday at one of the nation’s leading historically Black colleges coincides with school officials across the country calling in law enforcement to disband pro-Palestinian encampments and suppress demonstrations in recent weeks.

“What we won’t allow is disruptive behavior that prevents the ceremony or services from proceeding in a manner that those in attendance can partake and enjoy,” Thomas told CNN in an interview Thursday.

“So, for example, prolonged shouting down of the president as he speaks. I have also made a decision that we will also not ask police to take individuals out of commencement in zip ties. If faced with the choice, I will cease the ceremonies on the spot If we were to reach that position.”

The president’s Morehouse visit comes as his re-election campaign is trying to win over young and Black voters, particularly in battleground states like Georgia, as polling shows his support from those constituencies has softened since 2020. 

Thomas said the college will not allow “hate speech,” meaning any “calls for violence against another group or individual.” He said Morehouse is a place that “can hold the tensions” that have come to a boil at campuses across the nation.

“I would rather be the first president to have a failed commencement than to say you are less important than the ceremonies of this institution,” Thomas told CNN.

“I thought about it from the vantage point of how should Morehouse show up as an institution. And we should never put the ego of the institution above our values. And one of our values is to see the humanity in all,” he added.

Thomas also said Morehouse faculty members voted earlier on Thursday (a reportedly 50-38 vote) to award Biden an honorary degree. He said Biden’s decades as a public servant as well as a domestic and international leader whose body of work “merits an honorary degree from Morehouse College.”

“We need some place in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us. We look around some of the most venerable institutions of higher education have canceled commencement, canceled valedictorian speakers because of their having spoken out and exercised their rights to free speech.”

Thomas said the college would allow silent, non-disruptive protest, even students turning their chairs or theirs backs on Biden – which, he said, would embarrass him.

“As long as you don’t conduct yourselves in a way that deprives others from being able to participate, consume and celebrate this moment,” said Thomas, who has led Morehouse since 2018.

“Silent protests. You want to walk across the stage in a piece of garment that identifies your moral connection to either side of this conflict because we also have Jewish students here, you can do that.”

Protests have erupted at college campuses across the country as students have demanded that universities divest from Israel. Commencement ceremonies are taking place against a backdrop of police barricades and heightened law enforcement presence, metal detectors, and other security measures.

Biden has been confronted by some protests during his own speeches and campaign events. A Biden speech on abortion rights at George Mason University in Virginia earlier this year was marred by more than a dozen protests over his administration’s support of Israel.

The 140th Morehouse College Commencement Exercises will be held on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at 9:00 AM.

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