Biden’s Morehouse Speech

After weeks of protest, a solid effort.

After a few days of controversy in the days leading up to it, President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College yesterday. The headlines are all over the place.

Most focused on the substance of the remarks:

  • NYT, “Biden Draws on Themes of Manhood and Faith at Morehouse Commencement
  • WaPo, “Biden trumpets progress for Black Americans in Detroit and at Morehouse College
  • NPR , “At Morehouse, Biden says dissent should be heard because democracy is ‘still the way’
  • PBS NewsHour, “Biden tells Morehouse College he hears their voices of protest over Israel-Hamas war
  • Reuters, “Biden reaches out to Morehouse grads on Gaza, warns of risk to democracy
  • The Guardian, “Biden vows to fight ‘poison of white supremacy’ at Morehouse speech
  • USA Today, “At revered Black school, Biden leans into faith and tells grads he hears voices of dissent

Only a handful focused on the protests:

  • POLITICO, “Biden gets mild applause but no jeers in commencement speech describing ‘heartbreaking’ situation in Gaza
  • Teen Vogue, “Morehouse Students Turn Their Backs, Walk Out of Graduation as Joe Biden Gives Speech

By most accounts, the graduating class acted precisely as the Morehouse men they were molded to be: they treated their invited guest with respect, with a handful expressing their disapproval in a way that didn’t embarrass the institution or take away from the dignity of the occasion for their fellow graduates and their families.

As to the speech itself, aside from just a wee too much pandering to the crowd for my tastes, it mostly befitted the occasion. But fears that Biden would use it as a campaign speech were not unfounded.

After far too much repetition of his personal story that we’ve all heard hundreds of times, he delivers this:

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 Black — 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? (Applause.)

When I sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, in front of the fireplace across from my — my desk, I have two busts: one of Dr. King and one of Bobby Kennedy. I often find myself looking at those busts and making decisions. I ask myself: 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?

After another diversion into his own backstory, he pivots to use that setup to highlight all the things he’s done for Black people, especially his attempts to forgive student loans.

He then pivots to the primary controversy that roiled the college ahead of the speech:

But I also know some of you ask: What is democracy if we can’t stop wars that break out and break our hearts?

In a democracy, we debate and dissent about America’s role in the world. 

I want to say this very clearly.  I support peaceful, nonviolent protest.  Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.  I determined to make my c- — my administration look like America.  I have more African Americans in high places, including on the Court, than any president in American history — (applause) — because I need the input.

What’s happening in Gaza and Israel is heartbreaking.  Hamas’s vicious attack on Israel, killing innocent lives and holding people hostage.  I was there nine days after, s- — pictures of tying a mother and a daughter with a rope, pouring kerosene on them, burning them and watching as they died.  Innocent Palestinians caught in the middle of all this: men, women, and children killed or displaced in despite — in desperate need of water, food, and medicine.  It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

That’s why I’ve called for an immediate ceasefire — an immediate ceasefire to stop the fighting — (applause) — bring the hostages home.  And I’ve been working on a deal as we speak, working around the clock to lead an international effort to get more aid into Gaza, rebuild Gaza.  

I’m also working around the clock for more than just one ceasefire.  I’m working to bring the region together.  I’m working to build a lasting, durable peace.  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?  What rights do the Palestinian people have?  I’m working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution — the only solution — (applause) — for two people to live in peace, security, and dignity. 

This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world.  And there’s nothing easy about it.  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.

I don’t know that this will do anything to assauge his detractors but I believe it an honest assessment of his policy.

Then another pivot into campaign mode:

You’re all future leaders, every one of you graduating today.  And that’s not hyperbole.  You’re future leaders, all of you.  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.

And the desire to know what freedom is, what it can be is the heart and soul of why this college was founded in the first place, proving that a free nation is born in the hearts of men spellbound by freedom.  But the — that’s the magic of Morehouse.  That’s the magic of America.

But let’s be clear 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. 

Today in Georgia, they won’t allow water to be available to you while you wait in line to vote in an election.  What in the hell is that all about?  (Applause.)  I’m serious.  Think about it.  And then the constant attacks on Black election workers who count your vote.

Insurrectionists who storm the Capitol with Confederate flags are called “patriots” by some.  Not in my house.  (Applause.)  Black police officers, Black veterans protecting the Capitol were called another word, as you’ll recall. 

They also say out loud, these other groups, immigrants “poison the blood” of our country, like the Grand Wizard and fascists said in the past.  But you know and I know we all bleed the same color.  In America, we’re all created equal.  (Applause.)

Extremists close the doors of opportunity; strike down affirmative action; attack the values of diversity, equality, and inclusion. 

I never thought when I was graduating in 1968 — as your honoree just was — we talked about — I never thought I’d be in — present in a time when there’s a national effort to ban books — not to write history but to erase history. 

They don’t see you in the future of America.  But they’re wrong.  To me, we make history, not erase it.  We know Black history is American history.  (Applause.) 

Many of you graduates don’t know me, but check my record, you’ll know what I’m saying I mean from my gut. 

Several of the headlines focus on Biden’s appeal to the notion of manhood. While likely to be controversial with many in the Democratic base, it’s well-targeted to the mission of Morehouse. And, frankly, only a couple of paragraphs in a lengthy address:

And we know Black men are going to help us, lead us to the future — Black men from this class, in this university.  (Applause.)  

But, graduates, this is what we’re up against: extremist forces aligned against the meaning and message of Morehouse.  And they peddle a fiction, a caricature what being a man is about — tough talk, abusing power, bigotry.  Their idea of being a man is toxic.  I ran into them all the time when I was younger.  They got — all right, I don’t want to get started.  (Laughter.) 

But that’s not you.  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.  It’s about knowing faith without works is dead.  (Applause.)

His peroration is partly campaign mode but mostly a call to action:

Look, let me close with this.  I know I don’t look like I’ve been around very long.  (Laughter.)  (The President makes the sign of the cross.)  But in my career, for the first 30 years, I was told, “You’re too young, kid.”  They used to stop me from getting on the Senate elevator when I first got there, for real.  Now, I’m too old. 

Whether you’re young or old, I know what endures: The strength and wisdom of faith endures.  And I hope — my hope for you is — my challenge to you is that you still keep the faith so long as you can. 

That cap on your head proves you’ve earned your crown.  The question is now, 25 years from now, 50 years from now, when you’re asked to stand and address the next generation of Morehouse men, what will you say you did with that power you’ve earned?  What will you say you’ve done for your family, for your community, your country when it mattered most? 

I know what we can do.  Together, we’re capable of building a democracy worthy of our dreams; a future where every — even more of your brothers and sisters can follow their dreams; a boundless future where your legacies lift us up t- — so those who follow; 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.  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.  You can reveal a light hope — and that’s not — I’m not kidding — for yourself and for your nation. 

“The prayers of a righteous man availeth much.”  A righteous man.  A good man.  A Morehouse man. 

God bless you all.  We’re expecting a lot from you.

All in all, a solid speech and one that, unlike most commencement speeches, the graduates will remember for the rest of their lives. I suspect most will be happy that the call to disinvite the President was not heeded.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Excellent speech, by an actual president who understands his job and his duty, and despite being a million years old, is still looking to the future. The decency on display could not be more of a contrast with the rancid ravings of the toxic MAGA cult leader.

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  2. Skookum says:

    With so much news this morning, it felt good to read about a great speech. Thank you for emphasizing this event.

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  3. steve says:

    Skimmed over it. Too long, but I feel that way about almost every graduation speech. Agree it was solid if too long. I will say that when he talks about faith it feels sincere, unlike his opponent.

    Steve

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  4. CSK says:

    In my bleary-eyed pre-coffee state earlier this morning, I read the headline as “Biden’s Whorehouse Speech.”

    I’ll show myself out.

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  5. JohnSF says:

    I find I rather like your current President, for what it’s worth.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:
    Given the situation as he found it, and the environment he has to work in, Joe Biden is the best president of my lifetime.

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  7. Tony W says:

    Biden gives amazing speech, and continues to lead in a responsible and selfless manner.

    Media ignores it.

    POTUS polling gives Biden a 50/50 shot at winning in November against a felonious clown.

    If I had it to do over again, I’d just bail on the U.S. completely.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Tony W:

    If I had it to do over again, I’d just bail on the U.S. completely.

    I keep looking for ways to make it viable. Probably Spain or Portugal. But the IRS follows you everywhere, so there’s the issue of double taxation.

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  9. Tony W says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My (overly simplistic) understanding is that many countries, including those in the EU, have a treaty with the U.S. that gives you credit on your U.S. taxes for any taxes paid in your new country.

    Spain and Portugal are both high on my list as well, with Spain having the edge simply to avoid learning Portuguese. I believe simply buying a house in the half-million Euro range is sufficient to get a resident visa.

    I don’t have your wealth and fame though, so I have to consider expenses like navigating health care, travel back to the states for family stuff, lawyers and accountants to help with visa and taxation issues, etc.

    Still….

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