'We can't give it any oxygen': Biden calls on HBCU graduates to confront hate

In a speech that highlighted the importance of historically Black colleges and universities amid ongoing attacks on voting rights, civil rights and democracy itself, President Biden on Friday delivered the keynote address at South Carolina State University’s fall commencement ceremony.

"Without the right to vote, there is no democracy," Biden told graduates in Orangeburg, S.C.

Biden was the first sitting president to deliver a commencement address at the school in its 125-year history.

President Biden speaks into microphones at a podium and gestures with his fist.
President Biden addresses graduates of South Carolina State University during their commencement ceremony in Orangeburg, S.C., on Friday. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

He began his remarks by thanking Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who received his degree from South Carolina State in December 1961 but didn't participate in the graduation ceremony the following spring. (The school invited Clyburn to participate in Friday's ceremony, and he received a diploma on stage.)

Biden vowed to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which was passed by the House in August but has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

"The other team," the president said, "they used to be called the Republican Party."

"But this battle is not over," Biden continued. "We're gonna keep up the fight until we get it done. And you're gonna keep up the fight and we need your help badly."

President Biden stands onstage during a commencement ceremony with others, all wearing robes and face masks.
President Biden is conferred with an honorary degree during commencement ceremonies at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., on Friday. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The president also addressed the continued fight against "the oldest and darkest forces in this nation: hate and racism."

Biden said there is a "through line" that can be drawn from the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., to the deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, to the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

"Did you ever think you'd see in modern times people coming out of the fields [in Charlottesville] carrying torches and Nazi banners and screeching the most anti-Semitic and anti-Black rhetoric in history?" Biden said, before criticizing former President Donald Trump's response.

"The guy before who had this job, when asked what he thought about it, he said, well, there's some very good people there," Biden recalled. "Hell, very good people. They're racists. They're fascists."

Biden said that following those events, which he argued culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, multiple world leaders have asked him the same question: "Is America going to be all right?"

"'What about democracy in America?' Did you ever think you'd be asked that question by another leader?" Biden said. "I'm not exaggerating."

The president concluded his speech by telling graduates they have a "significant opportunity" to confront hatred.

"We can't give it any oxygen," Biden said. "We have to step on it. We have to respond to it. It's not who we are. It's a minority, but if the majority doesn't speak up, it has a profound impact. That's what we've seen the last few years. We cannot and we must not give hate any safe harbor."