At Morehouse graduation, thanks to 'God for woke class of 2024'

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Heather Timmons

ATLANTA (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday was delivered without any interruptions from students or faculty critical of his Israel policies, but graduation speakers seized the national spotlight that came with his presence to talk about race, Gaza and U.S. politics.

Morehouse, one of about 100 U.S. HBCUs, or historically Black colleges and universities, was founded in 1867 to educate Black men newly liberated from slavery. Alumni include civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and multiple speakers, including Biden, invoked his legacy civil rights activism.

Morehouse 2024 valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, whose mortarboard included a logo of the Palestinian flag with clenched fists, acknowledged that he had considered not giving a speech at all, then called for a ceasefire.

"It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip," he said. Biden applauded.

Some Morehouse students and faculty had called for Biden to be disinvited over his staunch support for Israel in the Israel-Hamas war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, Palestinian authorities say, and left many homeless and on the edge of famine. Israel is responding to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants that authorities say killed 1,200.

The college's president, David Thomas, had vowed to shut down the ceremony if it was disrupted, but the only signs of protest were small and silent.

"Thank you God for this woke class of 2024,” Reverend Claybon Lea Jr. said in his opening evocation, praising the students for their political awareness, as Biden, sitting onstage, smiled.

The reverend, who leads a Baptist church in California and is a Morehouse graduate, cited a "Palestinian Jew named Jesus," and said all children matter from Israelis to Palestinians and beyond.

Lea also called on God to grant Biden a "strengthening in his body, mind and spirit with a renewed resolve to lead this country and help us to become what Martin King called the beloved community."

HBCUs have a rich history of political activism, particularly amid the civil rights movement when students organized protests, marches and sit-ins to fight against segregation, racism and discrimination.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Atlanta and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Leslie Adler)