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Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One week from today, President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College. Biden will be at the Atlanta HBCU as protests against Biden and Israel's war in Gaza continue at universities across the country. Morehouse's most famous alum, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was the voice of nonviolent protests in the 20th century, including speaking out against the Vietnam War in a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Somehow, this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.

RASCOE: David Thomas is the president of Morehouse College. Welcome to the show.

DAVID THOMAS: Thank you.

RASCOE: How are students, faculty and even alums reacting to this upcoming speech from Biden? There have already been protests on your campus and requests to disinvite the president. So what are you hearing?

THOMAS: To be exact, we've had two protests, neither of which drew more than 100 people. And, you know, my experience has been that we cover the ideological spectrum on this issue - folks at each end of the continuum, people in the middle, as well as people who can see the value and appropriateness of having President Biden come speak at Morehouse College.

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RASCOE: Being that you're hearing from all of these different perspectives, what is your thoughts on this speech that Biden is to give and the invitation? How do you feel about it?

THOMAS: I'm fully in support of the president of the United States coming to speak at Morehouse College. The nation needs somewhere that can visualize for us the ability to hold the tensions that in so many ways are threatening to divide our society, that have divided some of the most venerable campuses in the country. And in a more than philosophical for me way, that's what Morehouse was born for.

RASCOE: At a place like this that has been a sanctuary for Black men, how are you preparing for the protest and thinking about security and police presence?

THOMAS: You know, we're being very conscious and aware about the fact that there will be protests. We're also working very closely with the Atlanta Police Department, the local sheriff's office and the Secret Service. We also have sent out and posted our policy with regard to free speech. If during the ceremony, people engage in silent, nondisruptive protests, if, you know, my students when they cross the stage - they want to wear insignia or scars that identify their relationship to this issue, that will be allowed.

RASCOE: Are you looking at scenarios, are you open to scenarios where you would have student protesters arrested?

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THOMAS: We've run exercises to look at all of the scenarios. And the last thing that we want to do is create a moment where someone is taken out of commencement by law enforcement because they are being disruptive. Faced with the choice of having police take people out of the Morehouse commencement in zip ties, we would essentially cancel or discontinue the commencement services on the spot.

RASCOE: So you're saying that if it comes to that point, you would cancel commencement or not continue on with it if people were going to be taken out under arrest?

THOMAS: Yeah, on the spot. If my choice is 20 people being arrested on national TV on the Morehouse campus, taken away in zip ties during our commencement, before we would reach that point, I would conclude the ceremony.

RASCOE: How does it feel as an academic and a college leader to be at a moment where this is what you're facing, and this level of division is happening over a very serious topic?

THOMAS: I feel up to the challenge. There are also moments, I feel, for some people in this, I'm kind of a object. You know, a flyer was put out a couple of weeks ago. One side, it says, President David Thomas is a hand of the white man's violence, supporting genocide and terrorism. It hurts when you're demonized. It also hurts when I have to worry about not whether my students disagree with the decision to bring Biden but that they may also be susceptible to weaponization by those who want to demonize anybody who's on the other side of the issue as compared to them.

RASCOE: What do you hope that your students will get from President Biden's speech at commencement?

THOMAS: I hope they walk away understanding the importance of Morehouse in the world. There are thousands of colleges, universities in this country. And Morehouse is the place where the president decided to come and give what may be the most important speech of his presidency. I want my students to think, where have I been for the last four years? - and that this place matters in the world. And that's why when I leave here, I have to make sure that I matter in the world.

RASCOE: That's David Thomas, president of Morehouse College. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS: Thank you.

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Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.