Biden team consulted prominent Morehouse alumni to craft commencement speech that’s expected to praise student voices

After weeks of consultation with prominent Black public figures, President Joe Biden is preparing to deliver a commencement speech at Morehouse College that highlights triumph over adversity and the lasting impact of peaceful protest, according to people involved in the preparations.

The content of the speech has been the subject of careful consideration, with an event intended to celebrate the next generation of young Black leaders becoming mired in controversy over some campus discontent with the president’s handling of the conflict in Gaza.

Dr. Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University and a longtime friend of Biden’s, counseled the president on praising the bravery of young people speaking out against injustice.

“The voices of students have grown even more clear, particularly in the last few years,” Allen told CNN in an interview, pointing to the protests following George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. “As opposed to striking a delicate balance, I think he will hit that head on.”

But the discussion behind the scenes has been delicate – with White House officials traveling to Morehouse’s Atlanta campus to hold forth with students and faculty and attempt to quell their concerns. During one meeting in early May, roughly half of the two-hour conversation focused on the conflict in Gaza, one source said, with the rest touching on other issues of concern for students.

Among those issues, according to people familiar with the discussions, was student worry that their achievements would be overshadowed by a stump speech. They have expressed frustration that the format of the event and the level of security required for such a high-profile visit resulted in limited tickets for family members, many of whom would be required to watch from an overflow room.

Stephen Benjamin, the president’s director of public engagement who conducted the meeting, says Biden is intent on keeping the focus on the graduates.

“He is the leader of the free world. On this day, he’s a commencement speaker for these young men, and that’s what he plans to do – be a commencement speaker,” Benjamin told CNN in an interview.

The campaign element is impossible to ignore. Biden will deliver the speech against a politically charged backdrop in front of a group whose political backing Biden needs in November amid signs of eroding support from young and Black voters in his rematch against former President Donald Trump.

“If folk think that there’s no substantive difference between the two choices, that their lives haven’t been fundamentally transformed by Biden’s policies, they didn’t, they won’t turn out,” Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, told The Bulwark Podcast. “And if we don’t turn out in high numbers, then [Biden’s] in trouble.”

Glaude, who sits on the Morehouse Board of Trustees and has advised Biden on issues of historical significance in the past, is among the leaders the White House consulted to craft the speech, according to two sources. The president’s top aides also sought input from Morehouse alumni like former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin; and Montgomery, Alabama, Mayor Steven Reed.

Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alum who has worked for Biden in various roles, played an integral role in facilitating those conversations and securing the president’s appearance at the college.

“African American male leaders that will be leaders in the nation, leaders in their community and that history of work and excellence that the school produces, deserves that recognition,” Richmond told CNN in an interview. Richmond said he expects the president to highlight the obligation to give back and the importance of community.

In the days leading up to the speech, the Biden administration outlined new data intended to highlight the scale of the White House’s investments in Black institutions. That data included $16 billion in funding for historically Black colleges and universities and roughly $12 billion in funding for Black-owned small businesses.

“He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk,” Benjamin said Thursday of Biden’s investment and policy priorities.

The numbers have already proven to be a powerful talking point, with Biden pointing to those statistics in a speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an event taking place amid a flurry of events to reach Black voters.

At Morehouse, Biden’s broader economic message touting the expansion of the middle class is likely to hit home, according to Allen.

HBCUs “continue to be the number one engine for promoting African Americans into the middle class,” Allen told CNN. “As drivers of this, it all fits together.”

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