Why Antiwar Protests Haven’t Flared Up at Black Colleges Like Morehouse

As President Biden prepares to give graduation remarks this month at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically Black institution, the White House is signaling anxiety about the potential for protests over the war in Gaza.

During a recent visit to Atlanta, Vice President Kamala Harris stopped to ask the Morehouse student government president about the sentiment on campus about the conflict, how students felt about Mr. Biden’s visit and what the graduating class would like to hear from him on May 19.

Then, on Friday, the White House dispatched the leader of its public engagement office and one of its most senior Black officials, Stephen K. Benjamin, to the Morehouse campus for meetings to take the temperature of students, faculty members and administrators.

The reasons for concern are clear: Nationwide demonstrations over the war and Mr. Biden’s approach to it have inflamed more than 60 colleges and universities, stoked tensions within the Democratic Party and created new headaches for his re-election bid.

Yet Mr. Biden appears to be entering a different type of scene at Morehouse.

While anger over the war remains palpable at Morehouse and other historically Black colleges and universities, these campuses have been largely free of turmoil, and tensions are far less evident: no encampments, few loud protests and little sign of Palestinian flags flying from dorm windows.

The reasons stem from political, cultural and socioeconomic differences with other institutions of higher learning. While H.B.C.U.s host a range of political views, domestic concerns tend to outweigh foreign policy in the minds of most students. Many started lower on the economic ladder and are more intently focused on their education and their job prospects after graduation.

At Morehouse — which has a legacy of civil rights protests and is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater — discontent over the Gaza war has played out in classrooms and auditoriums rather than on campus lawns.

“This should not be a place that cancels people regardless of if we agree with them,” David Thomas, the Morehouse president, said in an interview on Thursday. Of Mr. Biden’s visit, he said, “Whether people support the decision or not, they are committed to having it happen on our campus in a way that doesn’t undermine the integrity or dignity of the school.”

Some students have held contentious meetings with university leaders and urged them to rescind Mr. Biden’s invitation, and a small group of faculty members has vowed not to attend commencement. Some alumni wrote a letter expressing worries that student protesters could be punished, noting Morehouse’s history of “celebrating student activists long after they have graduated.”

But the college might appear politically safer for the president to visit than many others. Morehouse is a custom-bound place where undergraduates traditionally do not step on the grass in the heart of campus until they receive their degrees. Alumni view commencement as a distinguished event not only for students but also for scores of family and community members — making it a less likely venue for a major disruption.

Mr. Biden chose to speak at Morehouse after the White House had received invitations from an array of colleges. It will be the third time in four years he has addressed graduates of a historically Black institution; he has also spoken at commencement for one military academy each year.

Among those lobbying Mr. Biden to come to Morehouse was Cedric Richmond, a member of the college’s class of 1995, who ran Mr. Biden’s public engagement office and is now a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Richmond, who has a nephew at Morehouse, predicted Mr. Biden would speak about the high expectations of the college’s alumni, promote his record of reducing Black unemployment and narrowing the racial wealth gap, and deliver familiar exhortations about perseverance.

Mr. Richmond does not think Mr. Biden will face protests.

“The Morehouse College graduation, at least as I remember it, is a very solemn event,” he said. “You have almost 500 African American males walking across that stage, whose parents and grandparents sacrificed and those students worked their butts off to, one, get into Morehouse, and two, to graduate. That’s a very significant day. And I’m just not sure whether students or protesters are going to interfere with that solemn moment.”

Vice President Harris, who graduated from Howard University, another historically Black institution, is engaged in her own virtual tour of such colleges. A congratulatory video she recorded will be played for graduates at 44 H.B.C.U.s; she is often introduced as a surprise guest and greeted with cheers.

In Atlanta last month, Ms. Harris asked the Morehouse student government president, Mekhi Perrin, what approach Mr. Biden should take in his address.

“I think really she was just trying to gain an idea of what exactly students’ issues were with his coming, if any at all,” Mr. Perrin said. “And what would kind of shift that narrative.”

Mr. Biden has been trailed by Gaza protesters for months. The last time he spoke at a four-year college campus was in January, when demonstrators interrupted him at least 10 times during a rally at George Mason University in Virginia.

Morehouse’s traditions are strong. Dr. King said it was a place where he had advanced his understanding of nonviolent protest and moral leadership — which current Morehouse students say they take seriously.

“I feel like the protests do need to come out, because if you don’t see students advocating for what they believe in, then the change that they’re advocating for will never come about,” said Benjamin Bayliss, a Morehouse junior. Looking toward the statue of Dr. King in front of the chapel named for the civil rights leader, he added, “You really feel the weight of what King did and the fire of the torch that he lit that we have to carry on.”

Yet even as some students feel compelled to protest, outside factors can shape their decisions. Roughly 75 percent of students at H.B.C.U.s, including 50 percent of Morehouse students, are eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal aid program for low-income students. More than 80 percent of Morehouse students receive some form of financial aid. In the Class of 2024, nearly a third of graduates will be the first in their family to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Some students at Black colleges also may decide against protesting because of family pressure, which amplifies the importance of securing their degrees.

“Your student body at Columbia is very different than the student body at, say, Dillard,” said Walter Kimbrough, who spent a decade as president of Dillard University, a historically Black institution in New Orleans. “It doesn’t mean that people aren’t concerned. But they understand that they have some different kinds of stakes.”

The stakes are also high for Mr. Biden, whose standing with Black voters has softened ahead of November’s presidential election. Young people are less enthusiastic about voting at all — partly because of Mr. Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, but also because they are unhappy with the choice between him and former President Donald J. Trump.

“I think it’s really just picking the lesser of two evils,” said Freddrell Rhea Green II, a Morehouse freshman. “Anything better than Donald Trump, a madman, a quote unquote tyrant, is better for me.”

“Joe Biden is probably a very nice person,” said Samuel Livingston, an associate professor of Africana studies at Morehouse. “But niceness is not the level of leadership that we need. We need ethical leadership. And continuing to support the aiding, abetting and the stripping of Palestinian land, from Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is not ethical.”

Some students, like Auzzy Byrdsell, a senior studying kinesiology and journalism, support their classmates’ protests but fear a possible response from the police to a crowd of largely Black young men.

“Do we get tear-gassed?” said Mr. Byrdsell, the editor in chief of The Maroon Tiger, the school’s student newspaper. “Do we get arrested? That would not be the greatest look for a Morehouse College graduation.”

Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, a 1991 Morehouse alumnus, said that he hoped Mr. Biden would highlight his record and his agenda — but that there was little the president could say about the Gaza conflict to assuage his critics on campus.

“While what he says is important,” Mr. Warnock said, trying to put himself in the shoes of student protesters, “I think much more important is what he does in the future.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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