ATLANTA — President Joe Biden will be the commencement speaker at Morehouse College in Georgia, giving the Democrat a key election-year spotlight on one of the nation’s preeminent historically Black campuses as he works to shore up the racially diverse coalition that propelled him to the Oval Office.

The White House confirmed Tuesday that Biden would speak May 19 at the alma mater of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and then address the graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 25.

Polls have suggested Biden has work to do generate the same levels of Black support they won in 2020, especially among younger voters, and his appearance at Morehouse could be greeted with some form of protest. NBC News has reported that administrators are concerned that some faculty and students might organize demonstrations around Biden’s visit. Biden has increasingly encountered protests this year, mostly from progressives who assert that he is too supportive of Israel in its war with Hamas.

Biden’s speech will mark the second consecutive spring that Biden has spoken to the graduating class of a historically Black school. In 2023, the president delivered the commencement address at Howard University. The Washington, D.C., school is the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first nonwhite woman to hold that office. Morehouse, a private all-male school that is part of the multi-campus Atlanta University Center, also is the alma mater of Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator.

Warnock celebrated Biden’s selection, sidestepping any potential unhappiness in the Morehouse community.

“I could not be more thrilled and honored to see President Biden return to our great state,” Warnock said in a statement. “I know the president will have a timely, poignant, forward-looking message for the men of Morehouse.”

It would not take a significant drop in Black turnout for Biden to yield several states to former President Donald Trump in their rematch.

Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes over Trump out of about 5 million ballots cast. The combined enrollment at Morehouse and its adjoining schools that make up the Atlanta University Center is about 9,000 students. Biden’s margin in Wisconsin, where Black voters in greater Milwaukee are an anchor of Democrats’ statewide vote totals, was less than 21,000 votes. The president had more comfortable margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but still cannot afford to lose Black support across the metro areas of Detroit and Philadelphia.

Among states Trump won, Biden is targeting North Carolina, which has a notable Black college student population. Trump’s margin in the state was about 75,000 votes.

The administration and reelection campaign have targeted HBCUs since Biden took office in January 2021. Harris and Cabinet members have spoken on several campuses. Among other policy achievements and priorities, they have touted increases in federal money support for HBCUs; Biden’s efforts to forgive up to $10,000 in student loan burden per borrower and increase Pell Grants for low-income students; energy investments to combat the climate crisis, and Democrats’ support for abortion rights and decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Reflecting the nation’s overall racial gaps in income and net worth, Black college students are disproportionately dependent on Pell Grants, which typically cover only a fraction of overall college costs, and student loans. According to Federal Reserve data, about 1 out of 3 Black households has student loan debt, compared to about 1 in 5 white households. The average Black borrower also is carrying about $10,000 more in debt than the average white borrower. Additionally, federal statistics show about 60% of Black undergraduates receive Pell Grants, compared to about 40% of the overall undergraduate population and a third of white students.

Most historically Black colleges and universities, both state-affiliated and private, were founded in the years after the end of the Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment that ended chattel slavery. Most established white campuses in that post-war era, especially in the Old Confederacy, denied admission to Black applicants altogether or, in the case of many northern schools, admitted only a few Black students.

Morehouse was founded in 1867, and Spelman College, its adjacent private all-women’s school, was founded in 1881. The University of Georgia, the state’s flagship public university, meanwhile, was chartered in 1785. That was more than three years before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, but UGA did not serve Black students until Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter were enrolled under a federal court order in 1961.

Biden’s undergraduate alma mater, the University of Delaware, traces its roots to 1743, and its modern iteration began classes in 1867. The university did not integrate to include any Black students until 1948, when the 81-year-old president was 6 years old.


Kim reported from Washington.

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