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Morehouse College Prepares for Possible Protests

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Morehouse alum the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s statue in Washington D.C.Morehouse alum the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s statue in Washington D.C.When Dr. Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of educational leadership policy and law at Alabama State University, heard that President Joseph R. Biden would be speaking at Morehouse College’s commencement on Sunday, he said his first thought was: “Uh oh — this is going to be interesting.”

The reason for his trepidation is clear: this year’s graduation season has blended with a springtime rise in activism on campus. Thousands of students, faculty, and staff from institutions all across the country have conducted mostly peaceful protests against the ongoing Israeli war in Gaza.  

Protestors have called on institutions to disclose their investments and divest from any funds or research connected with Israel. Many are taking commencement as the opportunity to speak out, or rather, walk out, like they did to protest commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld at Duke University earlier this week. Seinfeld has previously expressed his support for Israel.

While these protests have largely been absent from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Smith said those who attend HBCUs are likely to sympathize with the plight of an oppressed people.

Dr. Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of educational leadership policy and law at Alabama State University.Dr. Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of educational leadership policy and law at Alabama State University.“HBCUs were founded for the sole purpose of educating newly freed enslaved people. When I’m thinking about what’s going on in the world right now — in Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which a lot of scholars are describing as a genocide — as African American people, we can relate to that,” said Smith. “HBCUs have always been beacons of hope for a lot of people. To invite people to campus who don’t share those same sentiments, who are actively participating in the genocide of another marginalized group, goes against the very foundation of the institution.”

Dr. Felecia Commodore, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said this moment is the perfect opportunity for institutions to assess shared governance policies to ensure it not only includes faculty but also students. The presence of a sitting U.S. president at a commencement is prestigious, said Commodore, and that it's happening at a famous, all-male HBCU is important. But the decision may not have been the students' preference.

“When we think about how we make decisions at an institution, what voices are there in the room? We’re seeing students, faculty, community members, and other stakeholders saying, ‘Who are you making these decisions for and with?’” asked Commodore. “I think there’s a paternalistic instinct and history in higher education with students, and I think it sometimes makes us not take seriously student voice and input in decision making process.”

While Morehouse initially requested Biden’s presence at commencement before the catalyzing events of Oct. 7, Morehouse President Dr. David A. Thomas did not announce the president would be speaking until April 23, well into the start of student-driven campus protests.

No one knows exactly what will happen when Biden speaks at commencement on May 19, but experts agree protest is likely. What’s important, they said, is that Morehouse offers those who wish to protest, a safe space to do so while acknowledging the important milestone achieved by their graduates.

Leaders at Morehouse did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration, who is hoping that young African Americans turned out in force to vote for the president in November, appear worried. Steve Benjamin, head of the White House Office of Public Engagement, was dispatched to Atlanta earlier this week to meet with students and faculty about the ongoing crisis.

“No matter what happens on May 19, I hope it will celebrate the accomplishments of folks who have reached the finish line and starting line for the next chapter of their life,” said Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, associate provost for Research, Innovation, and Graduate Education, and director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University.

Traditionally, commencements at HBCUs are a celebration of tremendous achievements, particularly since many who attend HBCUs often come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. At Morehouse, roughly 50% of its undergraduate population qualifies for the Pell Grant. Of the class of 2024, almost one third are first-generation graduates.

“Commencement is the time to honor the histories and struggles and accomplishments of the men who graduate from Morehouse, not a time to throw darts at other men, no matter if they’re popular or unpopular, although it’s tempting and seductive to want to do that,” said Strayhorn. “I think sometimes we miss how important a moment it is, not just for the students, but for everybody [supporting them].”

But Strayhorn acknowledged that, as protests were likely, he was grateful that Thomas said he would rather cancel commencement than call in police to arrest any protestors.

“We have no shortage of nationally televised moments of Black men being arrested, so we don’t need more of those,” said Strayhorn. “By the same token, I empathize with sentiments of students who would be dismayed because of commencement being prematurely dismissed because of that. It speaks to the complexity of the matter.”

Strayhorn and other scholars also pointed out that the class of 2024 most likely experienced a disrupted graduation from high school in 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have been looking forward to this graduation making up for what was lost.

Some Morehouse students have told media that protesting Biden’s speech would be reminiscent of Morehouse’s most famous alum: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I would not be surprised if you told me students were walking out [of commencement],” said Smith. “HBCUs have always been active in civic engagement. I don’t see a reason why they would not be.”

Smith and Commodore said these protests are testament to the modern, informed, and active student entering institutional walls.

“What we’re seeing is people realizing, ‘I thought I had a stake here, a voice as a stakeholder, and I’m starting to feel like I don’t. Now I have to engage in activities that show the institution that I matter. That I have a voice here,’” said Commodore. “And I think that’s how we can better understand the passion behind some of the protests we’re seeing, and I think that passion lies in all institutions, including HBCUs.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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