President Biden told Morehouse College's graduating class of 2024 that he's committed to serving Black voters while defending freedom and democracy in the face of "extremist forces" that he says threaten the soul of the nation.

With just six months until the general election, the speech, which was filled with religious themes of struggle and resilience, also served as a continuation of Biden's warning to his supporters of what he thinks the country would look like if Donald Trump is elected again.

"They don't see you in the future of America, but they're wrong," he said. "To me, we make history, not erase it. We know Black history is American history."

The president's commencement address at Morehouse, a historically Black school in Atlanta, also comes as polling shows potentially lower support for his reelection efforts among Black voters and young voters, and as campus protests over conflict in Gaza have disrupted graduations around the country.

Biden said he understood angst over the direction of the country, acknowledged "dissent about America's role in the world" and said that those who have different views should have their voices heard in the name of democracy.

"That's my commitment to you," he said. "To show you: democracy, democracy democracy — it's still the way."

His speech is also one of many events on his recent trip aimed at speaking to Black voters, following events with plaintiffs in the historic Brown v. Board Supreme Court case, meetings with Black Greek Letter Organizations, often known as the Divine Nine, and before he headlines an NAACP dinner in Detroit, Mich.

For weeks, several college and university campuses around the country have been roiled with student protests and encampments expressing opposition against Biden and U.S. policies and involvement around conflict in Gaza.

Morehouse has seen student demonstrations, but not occupation of campus spaces or clashes with law enforcement. Outside of the ceremony, a small number of protestors gathered while the commencement itself did not see any major disruptions.

Last week, Morehouse College President David Thomas said he would rather halt proceedings than have students escorted away for protesting.

"If my choice is 20 people being arrested on national TV on the Morehouse campus, taken away in zip ties during our commencement, before we would reach that point, I would conclude the ceremony," he said on NPR's Weekend Edition.

Those concerns did not come to pass. Apart from the heightened security and increased media presence, Biden's speech was met with a similar response to a typical college graduation ceremony.

More than 400 graduating students walked across the stage Sunday, and during Biden's speech a handful of students, some wearing keffiyehs, turned their chairs around to face away from the president.

After the ceremony, Morehouse issued a statement praising the graduating class and their intentionally muted response to Biden.

"It is fitting that a moment of organized, peaceful activism would occur on our campus while the world is watching to continue a critical conversation," the statement reads. "We are proud of the resilient class of 2024's unity in silent protest, showing their intentionality in strategy, communication, and coordination as a 414-person unit."

DeAngelo Fletcher, Morehouse College's valedictorian, closed his address to his classmates by addressing global conflict, particularly the Israel-Hamas war.

"For the first time in our lives, we've heard the global community sing one harmonious song that transcends language and culture," he said. "It is my sense as a Morehouse Man, nay – as a human being – to call for an immediate and a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip."

Biden's speech at Morehouse comes with intense scrutiny as many presidential horse race polls show the president lagging with young voters, Black voters and other nonwhite groups that helped propel him to a narrow victory against Donald Trump in 2020.

Those polls — for now — signal a drop in support for Biden but not necessarily an equal shift towards Donald Trump. There are also signs that some of the displeasure with Biden is more pronounced among people who aren't as likely to vote in November.

While facing a nominal challenge in the Democratic presidential primary, Biden's best-performing areas have often come in places with a large share of Black voters. For example, in Georgia's primary contest 95% of Black voters pulled a Democratic ballot, and Biden won 95% of the overall vote.

While some students, faculty and alumni expressed opposition to Biden's selection as the commencement speaker, reaction on campus during the graduation ceremony was largely positive.

Dr. Tiffany Johnson, a 50-year-old who came to the campus green at 4:30 a.m. to see her son graduate, was also excited to see Biden.

"He is the leader of the free world, the most important job in the world, and for him to come to speak to [Morehouse] graduates, to inspire them, is phenomenal," Johnson said.

Johnson said Black voters who might not support Biden are part of a "bandwagon" that do not understand what he has done for the community, and said his speech would be an ideal opportunity to share his accomplishments.

In the speech, Biden touted a track record that he says makes key investments in Black communities, including a record $16 billion funding package towards historically Black colleges and universities, protecting voting rights, and creating economic policies that strengthens Black businesses.

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President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College today in Atlanta. He told graduates of the historically Black college that he would continue to defend freedom and democracy.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That's my commitment to you - to show you democracy, democracy, democracy is still the way.

KURTZLEBEN: The speech also comes as Biden sees his support softening among young voters and Black voters ahead of his November rematch against Donald Trump.

NPR's Stephen Fowler was at the commencement this morning and joins us now for more on this address. Hey, Stephen.


KURTZLEBEN: This was not your typical commencement speech congratulating everyone on four years of hard work. Biden's message here comes in this intense scrutiny over his age and over his handling of the conflict in Gaza. And also, it comes amid flagging poll numbers with key demographics. So I'm wondering, how would you describe the tone of this speech?

FOWLER: Well, Danielle, if you were expecting a rip-roaring campaign speech from candidate Joe Biden, you'd be a little disappointed. If you were expecting a vanilla, down-the-middle advice-to-graduates platitude speech, you'd also be disappointed. It was this mix of acknowledging hardships the class of 2024 faced, like starting school amidst the pandemic and racial justice protests spurred by the murder and mistreatment of Black people, and with Biden invoking biblical references to remind people that it's both a long way until November and the stakes of this election are too high to ignore.


BIDEN: Remember; Jesus was buried on Friday. And it was Sunday - on Sunday, he rose again. But we don't talk enough about Saturday.

FOWLER: So, Danielle, Biden talks about this metaphorical Saturday as this time when people feel hopeless. They lean into the bad and sad things going on. But then it spurs them to make a plan of action and, as he says, turn the pain into purpose.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so let's run with that. So on Biden's metaphorical Saturday he's talking about, what does this speech tell us about what his campaign is trying to do?

FOWLER: This speech is one of many things on the schedule recently that his campaign says shows that there's authentic and consistent outreach with Black voters across the U.S. I mean, he met with plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board school desegregation case, sat down with Divine Nine Black Greek letter organization members and is making stops at several Black-owned small businesses in Georgia and Michigan.

As far as the reception at Morehouse, there were a few graduates that turned their back on him, a few protesters off campus. But you could say, at best, there was large pockets of apathy towards a lot of his message, even if it's something people agreed with. That said, I did talk to some people, like Tiffany Johnson, who got there at 4:30 in the morning to get a good seat to see her son graduate, who felt that this speech would be the perfect opportunity to tout his message to the Black voters he's trying to reach.

TIFFANY JOHNSON: He is the leader of the free world, the most important job in the world. And for him to come and speak to 412 graduates, to inspire them, is phenomenal.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, Stephen, I want to broaden this out beyond Morehouse because we know polls are close. So is it fair to say that these young and Black voters that he's trying to reach are make or break for Joe Biden?

FOWLER: Absolutely, Danielle. I mean, every voter is make or break with this coalition that Biden put together.


FOWLER: It doesn't take that much with these groups to sway an election, between narrow margins in swing states and third-party campaigns courting these voters. The tepid reaction to Biden, though, is not accompanied by an equal swing towards Donald Trump, and there are signs of some displeasure with Biden, more among people who aren't likely to show up and vote in November. Still, the campaign is not taking things for granted. It's speeches like these, plus the debates that start next month, that the campaign hopes will paint the stark contrast between Joe Biden and Donald Trump's vision for the future.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler in Atlanta. Stephen, thank you.

FOWLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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