Biden tells pro-Gaza student protesters their ‘voices should be heard’ during Morehouse commencement speech

President Joe Biden called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and voiced his support for student protesters as he delivered the commencement address at one of the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges, Morehouse.

The president appeared on stage at Morehouse College on Sunday morning, to deliver a speech that placed him in the most direct fire to date from college students protesting against Israel’s actions in Gaza in campuses across the country.

Mr Biden spent much of the address speaking about the conflict in the Middle East – while also trying to connect with Black voters ahead of the 2024 election – decrying the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and saying that the voices of protesters “should be heard”.

“I support peaceful, non-violent protest,” Mr Biden told the graduating class of seniors. “Your voices should be heard. And I promise you, I hear them.”

“What's happening in Gaza and Israel is heartbreaking,” said the president. “Innocent Palestinians caught in the middle of this, men, women and children killed or displaced, in desperate need of food and water.”

“It's a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That's why I've called for an immediate ceasefire, to stop the fighting,” he added. “Bring the hostages home.”

Mr Biden’s speech was punctuated by cheers at a few points, including after he called for a ceasefire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Morehouse College Commencement on May 19, 2024 in Atlanta (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks at the Morehouse College Commencement on May 19, 2024 in Atlanta (Getty Images)

The Biden administration had reportedly feared that the president’s speech would be derailed by protesters – after walkouts and demonstrations during several graduations and commencements in recent weeks – and Morehouse’s administration had warned against disrupting the event.

When he began speaking, one student held up a Palestinian flag and a handful turned their chairs away from him.

One faculty member was seen turning her back to him and raising a fist, while standing in silent protest.

But his remarks were not interrupted, with the event running smoothly.

Some graduates and faculty instead told local media outlets that they opposed the college’s dean bestowing an honorary degree on the president as the fighting continues in Gaza with US support.

More than 35,000 Palestinians are presumed to have been killed by Israeli strikes since the fighting began last October.

Speaking before Mr Biden, valedictorian DeAngelo “DJ” Fletcher urged leaders to seek “an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip” and for the return of hostages held by Hamas.

Others protested outside of the event itself.

“It is a shame to give an honorary degree to someone who is supporting financially, publicly genocide in Gaza,” professor Cynthia Hewitt told WSB-TV in Atlanta.

The address to Morehouse graduates served a dual purpose for the president — it allowed him to address one of his key constituencies, younger Black Americans, in a state where he is set to have a major showdown with Donald Trump in November: Georgia.

The southern state will be one of several major battlegrounds this election cycle after Mr Biden won it in 2020. One of several states where the former president sought to overturn the results of the election without real proof of fraud or wrongdoing, Georgia is also preparing for one of the former president’s three upcoming criminal trials, with the fourth already underway in New York.

Mr Biden spoke of the challenges facing Black Americans, pointing to the murder of George Floyd and the Republican efforts to erase Black history through book bans.

“They don’t make history they erase it,” he said. “We know Black history is American history.”

He added: “I never thought I’d be president at a time when there’s a national movement to ban books.”

“It’s natural to wonder: Does the democracy you hear about actually work for you?” he asked, adding that the US must continue “to call out the poison of white supremacy, root out systemic racism.”

Pointing to his predecessor’s allegedly criminal attempts to cling to power and the January 6 Capitol riot, he linked it directly to the anger perpetuated by white supremacists on the far right.

His evidence for this link were the racist chants endured by Capitol police officers on January 6 2021, many of whom reported and recorded video on their bodycams of rioters screaming racial slurs.

“Black police officers, Black veterans protecting the Capitol [on January 6] were called another word, as you recall,” Mr Biden reminded the crowd.

The speech echoed many themes of his 2024 re-election campaign efforts, though it also delved deeply into themes of faith and family as he spoke about the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a car crash.

Mr Biden’s remarks came just days after his campaign accepted offers for two debates with Mr Trump – the first due to take place in June.