President Joe Biden delivered a politically energized keynote speech at Howard University’s 155th Commencement Convocation ceremony, speaking to the importance of investing in HBCUs and chastising white supremacy.
Biden addressed more than 2,000 Howard graduates from the class of 2023 inside the densely seated Capital One Arena last Saturday. On the arena floor, eager graduates took their seats in their designated sections, representing the 14 schools and colleges that comprise the university.
Thousands of family members, loved ones and friends filled the remainder of the 20,000-seat arena, watching the ceremony from the jumbotron just above the heads of their graduates. The commencement convocation was Howard’s first full-capacity ceremony since before the pandemic, according to the university.
Biden opened his remarks by congratulating the graduates, thanking the Howard community, and calling Howard, the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, the “real HU,” which was met with laughter and applause from the audience.
“The Mecca,” Biden said. “Always promoting excellence, leadership and truth and service. It really has. And a proving ground for future leaders of science, medicine, education, business, faith, arts, entertainment and public service.”
Biden devoted much of his half-hour speech discussing the “excellence” that is found in HBCU graduates. HBCUs produce nearly a quarter of all Black STEM professionals. However, many of these institutions suffer from “chronic underfunding,” according to the United Negro College Fund.
“That’s why I asked and we’ve invested $6 billion and counting in HBCUs, including to create new research and development labs that prepare students for jobs of the future in high-income fields, from cybersecurity, engineering, biochemistry, [and] healthcare,” Biden said.
As part of his cumulative HBCU investment plan in 2021, the Biden-Harris administration forgave $1.6 billion of student loan debt “provided to HBCUs for capital improvements through the Department’s HBCU Capital Financing Program,” according to the White House.
Biden heavily spoke to the ways white supremacy has permeated the country and reflected on the racial climate in America today.
“I don’t have to tell you that fearless progress towards justice often meets ferocious pushback by the oldest and most sinister of forces,” Biden said, “That is because hate never goes away. I thought when I graduated we could defeat hate.”
Biden added that to counter this hate, Americans must not act in silence and complicity but remain resilient through the “battle for the soul of this nation,” a phrase he referenced last month when he officially announced his plans to run for re-election.
He also alluded to the heightened racial tensions in the country during the widespread protests after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. While he did not name his presidential predecessor, Biden referenced former President Donald Trump’s quote that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the national protests. He shared that his opponent’s complicity in confronting white supremacy reaffirmed his need to stay engaged in “public life.”
“On our best days, enough of us have the guts and the hearts to stand up for the best in us. To choose love over hate, unity over disunion, progress over retreat, to stand up against the poison of white supremacy,” Biden said. “I did my inaugural address to single out that the most dangerous terrorists in our homeland is white supremacy. I am not just saying that because I am at an HBCU.”
Around the same time last year, Biden echoed similar sentiments in Buffalo, New York, when he condemned the “poison” of white supremacy less than 72 hours after the gunman and white supremacist Payton Gendron opened fire in a grocery store, killing 10 Black people.
In addition to denouncing white supremacy and his call to invest in HBCUs, Biden shared that “there is more to do” on police reform and public safety, stressed the need to pass a law targeting gun violence and celebrated the accomplishments of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Before Biden’s speech, Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick awarded the 46th president an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. In his last commencement convocation as the university president, Frederick commended Biden’s leadership and service as a democratic figure over the past five decades.
“Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., Howard University is most honored and pleased to name you a favorite son of the capstone as we salute and hold in our highest esteem your unmatched record for justice, empowerment and the peaceful advancement of humanity throughout the world,” Frederick said.
“We revere, commend and proudly applaud your magnificent life of leadership and contributions that will inure to the benefit of America and to the global community for time and memorial,” he added.
Biden’s speech falls flat with some graduates
While graduates like Cory Utsey understood the significance of having a sitting U.S. president speak at the commencement ceremony, Utsey, who received her bachelor’s degree in journalism, shared that Biden’s speech did not resonate with her as she hoped.
“I understand that, as a politician, he has his obligations to make certain points in his speeches, and speaking at an HBCU could definitely help procure the Black vote,” Utsey said. “But I wanted a speech that motivated me and empowered me as I enter this new phase of my life, and I do not feel as though that was what I got. What should have been a momentous celebration of the last four years felt like more of a campaign stop.”
Similar sentiments were expressed among other Howard graduates, such as David Dupree Jr., who felt that the political nature of the speech lacked encouragement and failed to “speak into the lives” of the graduates.
“For our commencement speaker, we want something that we can take back and use as we go forward in this new step in our lives,” Dupree, who received his bachelor’s degree in television and film, said. “I feel like that didn’t happen. It was a political call to action, and as a graduate, that’s not going to help me. Biden telling me about white supremacy isn’t going to help me when I’m feeling discouraged because I’m still looking for a job or I’m trying to make it in my career.”
During the full length of Biden’s speech, more than a dozen graduates stood with their backs turned to the president holding signs such as “Turn Your Back on Biden for the Perpetration of State Violence” and “Biden and Harris Don’t Care About Black People.”
The protesters, who identified themselves as the Howard University Graduates for Solidarity, released a statement regarding their demonstration, citing issues such as the killing of Jordan Neely and Tyre Nichols, Howard’s tuition increases and U.S. imperialism.
“As advocates, we are unsatisfied with the action (or lack thereof) from the Biden Administration. We call upon President Joseph Biden to do more than ask for investigations and observe our struggle…,” the protesters said in the statement. “Joseph R. Biden, you can’t speak to us if you don’t stand with us. You can not celebrate with us if you do not see us.”
Celebrating a milestone
Despite the inclement weather, location change and varied reactions to Biden’s speech, the commencement convocation maintained its joyous atmosphere as graduates, families, honorees and faculty celebrated the momentous occasion.
While the pandemic left the classes of 1971 and 1972 unable to celebrate their 50-year reunions in the previous two commencement ceremonies, they were honored on Saturday in addition to the class of 1973 in a tradition that labels them as the “Golden Class.”
Anthony Holder, a 1973 graduate from the College of Engineering, explained why he enjoyed the ceremony. “It was great not just seeing my classmates and friends but also the current candidates in the class of 2023. It made me think about how I was them at one time, and 50 years later, they’ll be me,” Holder said with a pensive chuckle.
Lilian Onokaoa, a graduate of the School of Pharmacy, shared her excitement about completing her time at the Mecca.
“Overall, I’m really happy. I’ve been in school for a long time and it’s finally done with,” Onokaoa said. “I’m excited to go on to my next journey and see what will happen in the future.”
The 155th Commencement Convocation is available to watch on the university’s official Youtube channel.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew
May 16, 2023 at 12:22 pm
If only a dozen students turned their back on the speech, that doesn’t sound like much of a protest. And a political call to action is motivation for graduates of an HBCU and any college who enter a work world where politics is central to just about every aspect of their lives. Hardly anything they will do as an entrepreneur or company staff person won’t be impacted by politics … from the food that’s inspected for them to eat, to the roads they drive on, to the internet they use, to the legislators who decide whether a woman can make their own health choices, to the education they just completed. If they didn’t learn that at Howard University, they missed an important lesson that wasn’t taught in the classroom. Congratulations to all the graduates though. Howard will always be with them. My commencement speaker was President George H.W. Bush, I’d take Biden over him any day.
May 21, 2023 at 4:28 pm
She wore simple studs with her elegant cocktail dress.