Biden’s Address To Morehouse Grads

Heather Cox Richardson

Delivering the commencement address to the graduating seniors at Morehouse College today, President Joe Biden addressed the nation. After thanking the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and all the people who helped the graduates get to the chairs in front of the stage, Biden recalled Morehouse’s history. The school was founded in 1867 by civil rights leader Reverend William Jefferson White with the help of two other Baptist ministers, the Reverend Richard C. Coulter and the Reverend Edmund Turney, to educate formerly enslaved men. They believed “education would be the great equalizer from slavery to freedom,” Biden said, and they created an institution that would make the term “Morehouse man” continue to stand as a symbol of excellence 157 years later. 

Then Biden turned to a speech that centered on faith. Churches talk a lot about Jesus being buried on Friday and rising from the dead on Sunday, he said, “but we don’t talk enough about Saturday, when… his disciples felt all hope was lost. In our lives and the lives of the nation, we have those Saturdays—to bear witness the day before glory, seeing people’s pain and not looking away. But what work is done on Saturday to move pain to purpose? How can faith get a man, get a nation through what was to come?” 

It’s a truism that anything that happens before we are born is equidistant from our personal experience, mixing the recent past and the ancient past together in a similar vaguely imagined “before” time. Most of today’s college graduates were not born until about 2002 and likely did not pay a great deal of attention to politics until about five years ago. Biden took the opportunity to explain to them what it meant to live through the 1960s. 

He noted that he was the first in his family to graduate from college, paid for with loans. He fell in love, got a law degree, got married and took a job at a “fancy law firm.” 

But his world changed when an assassin murdered the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King—a Morehouse man—and the segregated city of Wilmington, Delaware, erupted with fires, looting, fights, and occasional gunfire. For nine months, the National Guard patrolled the city in combat gear,  “the longest stretch in any American city since the Civil War,” Biden recalled.

“Dr. King’s legacy had a profound impact on me and my generation, whether you’re Black or white,” Biden explained. He left the law firm to become first a public defender and then a county councilman, “working to change our state’s politics to embrace the cause of civil rights.” 

The Democratic Party had historically championed white supremacy, but that alignment was in the process of changing as Democrats had swung behind civil rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Biden and his cohort hoped to turn the Delaware Democratic Party toward the new focus on civil rights, he said. In 1972, Biden ran for the Senate and won…barely, in a state Republican president Richard Nixon won with 60% of the vote. 

Biden recalled how, newly elected and hiring staff in Washington, D.C., he got the call telling him that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident and that his two sons were gravely injured. The pain of that day hit again 43 years later, he said, when his son Beau died of cancer after living for a year next to a burn pit in Iraq. And he talked of meeting First Lady Jill Biden, “who healed the family in all the broken places. Our family became my redemption,” he said. 

His focus on family and community offered a strong contrast to the Republican emphasis on individualism. “On this walk of life…you come to understand that we don’t know where or what fate will bring you or when,” Biden said. “But we also know we don’t walk alone. When you’ve been a beneficiary of the compassion of your family, your friends, even strangers, you know how much the compassion matters,” he said. “I’ve learned there is no easy optimism, but by faith—by faith, we can find redemption.”

For the graduates, Biden noted, four years ago “felt like one of those Saturdays. The pandemic robbed you of so much. Some of you lost loved ones—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, who…aren’t able to be here to celebrate with you today….  You missed your high school graduation. You started college just as George Floyd was murdered and there was a reckoning on race. 

“It’s natural to wonder if democracy you hear about actually works for you. 

“What is democracy if Black men are being killed in the street?

“What is democracy if a trail of broken promises still leave[s]…Black communities behind?

“What is democracy if you have to be 10 times better than anyone else to get a fair shot?

“And most of all, what does it mean, as we’ve heard before, to be a Black man who loves his country even if it doesn’t love him back in equal measure?” 

The crowd applauded.

Biden explained that across the Oval Office from his seat behind the Resolute Desk are busts of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, challenging Biden: “Are we living up to what we say we are as a nation, to end racism and poverty, to deliver jobs and justice, to restore our leadership in the world?” He wears a rosary on his wrist made of Beau’s rosary as a reminder that faith asks us “to hold on to hope, to move heaven and earth to make better days.” 

“[T]hat’s my commitment to you,” he said. “[T]o show you democracy, democracy, democracy is still the way.”

Biden pledged to “call out the poison of white supremacy” and noted that he “stood up…with George Floyd’s family to help create a country where you don’t need to have that talk with your son or grandson as they get pulled over.” The administration is investing in Black communities and reconnecting neighborhoods cut apart by highways decades ago. It has reduced Black child poverty to the lowest rate in history. It is removing lead pipes across the nation to provide clean drinking water to everyone, and investing in high-speed internet to bring all households into the modern era. 

The administration is creating opportunities, Biden said, bringing “good-paying jobs…; capital to start small businesses and loans to buy homes; health insurance, [prescription] drugs, housing that’s more affordable and accessible.” Biden reminded the audience that he had joined workers on a picket line. To applause, he noted that when the Supreme Court blocked his attempt to relieve student debt, he found two other ways to do it. He noted the administration’s historic investment in historically black colleges and universities. 

“We’re opening doors so you can walk into a life of generational wealth, to be providers and leaders for your families and communities.  Today, record numbers of Black Americans have jobs, health insurance, and more [wealth] than ever.”

Then Biden directly addressed the student protests over the Israeli government’s strikes on Gaza. At Morehouse today, one graduate stood with his back to Biden and his fist raised during the president’s speech, and the class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, who spoke before the president, wore a picture of a Palestinian flag on his mortarboard and called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, at which Biden applauded.

“In a democracy, we debate and dissent about America’s role in the world,” Biden said. “I want to say this very clearly. I support peaceful, nonviolent protest. Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.” 

“What’s happening in Gaza…is heartbreaking,” he said, with “[i]nnocent Palestinians caught in the middle” of a fight between Hamas and Israel. He reminded them that he has called “for an immediate ceasefire…to stop the fighting [and] bring the hostages home.” His administration has been working for a deal, as well as to get more aid into Gaza and to rebuild it. Crucially, he added, there is more at stake than “just one ceasefire.” He wants “to build a lasting, durable peace. Because the question is…: What after? What after Hamas? What happens then? What happens in Gaza? What rights do the Palestinian people have?” To applause, he said, “I’m working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution—the only solution—for two people to live in peace, security, and dignity.” 

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world,” he said. “I know it angered and frustrates many of you, including my family. 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 challenging anger, frustration, and heartbreak to find a solution. It’s about doing what you believe is right, even when it’s hard and lonely. You’re all future leaders, every one of you graduating today…. You’ll face complicated, tough moments. In these moments, you’ll listen to others, but you’ll have to decide, guided by knowledge, conviction, principle, and your own moral compass.”

Turning back to the United States, Biden urged the graduates to examine “what happens to you and your family when old ghosts in new garments seize power, extremists come for the freedoms you thought belonged to you and everyone.” He noted attacks on equality in America, and that extremist forces were peddling “a fiction, a caricature [of] what being a man is about—tough talk, abusing power, bigotry. Their idea of being a man is toxic.” 

“But that’s not you,” he continued. “It’s not us. You all know and demonstrate what it really means to be a man. Being a man is about the strength of respect and dignity. It’s about showing up because it’s too late if you have to ask. It’s about giving hate no safe harbor and leaving no one behind and defending freedoms. It’s about standing up to the abuse of power, whether physical, economic, or psychological.” To applause, he added: “It’s about knowing faith without works is dead.”

“The strength and wisdom of faith endures,” Biden said. “And I hope—my hope for you is—my challenge to you is that you still keep the faith so long as you can.” 

“Together, we’re capable of building a democracy worthy of our dreams…a bigger, brighter future that proves the American Dream is big enough for everyone to succeed.”

“Class of 2024, four years ago, it felt probably like Saturday,” Biden concluded. “Four years later, you made it to Sunday, to commencement, to the beginning. And with faith and determination, you can push the sun above the horizon once more….”

“God bless you all,” he said. “We’re expecting a lot from you.”

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