Atlanta (Georgia): A woman stands with her back turned and holding up her fist during a speech by President Joe Biden during a Morehouse College commencement ceremony, on Sunday.—Reuters
Atlanta (Georgia): A woman stands with her back turned and holding up her fist during a speech by President Joe Biden during a Morehouse College commencement ceremony, on Sunday.—Reuters

ATLANTA: President Joe Biden told students on Sunday at the former university of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr that he heard their voices over the protests against the war in Gaza that have roiled US campuses.

As one student stood with his back to Biden during the graduation ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, the president added that he was working around the clock for an immediate ceasefire and lasting regional peace. “This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about it,” said Biden, who wore a maroon and black gown in the colors of the historically Black university.

“I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family, but most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.” Student protests, which have engulfed a string of US campuses, have caused political troubles for Biden in an election year in which he is set for a rematch with Republican former president Donald Trump.

“I support peaceful, non-violent protest. Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them,” Biden told the ceremony. Biden said he wanted an “immediate ceasefire to stop the fighting, bring the hostages home”.

Some students at Morehouse college graduation turn their backs to the president

The 81-year-old Democrat added that he was pushing for a “lasting, durable peace” in the wider Middle East that would lead to an independent Palestinian state, which he called the “only solution.”

Outreach to Black voters

Biden had earlier applauded as the college’s valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, also called for an immediate ceasefire in his own speech. The speech at the alma mater of rights hero King was part of a series of Biden events this week aimed at winning over Black voters, amid polls showing that their support for him is flagging. But there had also been concerns that Gaza protests would disrupt the ceremony, his most direct engagement with students since the demonstrations erupted.

Some students at Morehouse had called for Biden’s speech to be canceled and a senior White House official reportedly recently met students and faculty members beforehand.

Biden initially stayed silent on the Gaza protests but later said that “order must prevail” after police broke up several university encampments around the US. Biden’s problems with voters over Gaza mirror wider issues he has with Black and younger voters, two groups that helped him beat Republican Donald Trump in the 20 20 election.

He will need to keep those strands in his coalition to have a hope of preventing Trump from making a sensational comeback to the White House despite a chaotic first term and multiple criminal indictments.

A New York Times/Siena poll last week showed that, in addition to trailing Trump in several key battleground states, Biden is also losing ground with African Americans.

Trump is winning more than 20 per cent of Black voters in the poll — which would be the highest level of Black support for a Republican presidential candidate since the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, The New York Times said. Several other polls have also shown Biden’s support lagging among Black voters.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2024

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