TheGrio spoke with America’s first Black vice president and Atlanta students about her “Fight For Our Freedoms” college tour and what’s at stake in the upcoming election.
TheGrio was on the ground with Vice President Kamala Harris as she continued her “Fight For Our Freedoms” college tour this week on the HBCU campus of Morehouse College.
As part of the vice president’s travel pool on Tuesday, theGrio got an up-close and personal look into Harris’ day trip to Atlanta, Georgia, where she encouraged young Black voters to own their political power and fight back against attempts to strip away “hard-fought” freedoms that are under attack by the Republican Party.
Thousands of students from Morehouse and neighboring HBCU institutions that are part of the Atlanta University Center – Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College – gathered inside the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel to hear from and engage with America’s first Black and first woman vice president.
“We’re not talking about pop culture. We are having very serious conversations, and they want those conversations,” Harris told theGrio exclusively of her interactions with students during this month’s nationwide college tour. “They want to participate in those conversations, and they want to lead in those conversations. And that’s what excites me most.”
While flying aboard Air Force Two, Harris reflected on her own experience as an HBCU student at Howard University, where she graduated in 1986.
“I mean, I see something of my experience in how they are experiencing it, which you know, I was there believing I could change the world,” the vice president told theGrio. “I was there believing there were no barriers to what I could do. And I see that in them.”
Despite reports citing national polls about Harris’ overall favorability with American voters, polling also shows the vice president has solid support among young and Black voters. Ahead of the 2024 elections, Harris and President Joe Biden will need the support of those voters to replicate their historic win in the 2020 presidential election.
The vice president’s visit to Atlanta was anecdotal evidence of her political star power with voters considered the base of the Democratic Party.
The moment she stepped off Air Force Two at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday morning, she was greeted by local TV cameras and a throng of spectators who waited behind barricades on the airport tarmac.
After being welcomed by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., the vice president walked over to the crowd and immediately bent down to greet a group of little Black girls. Harris took photographs with them and continued greeting the crowd for more than 10 minutes before the vice presidential motorcade zipped along a temporarily shut-down highway to the Morehouse campus.
Before her moderated conversation with entertainment journalist Gia Peppers and former White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond, a graduate of Morehouse, Harris met with dozens of students, campus leaders and elected officials.
Students, in particular, were enthusiastic about meeting and chatting with the vice president. At times, Harris briefly huddled with small groups of them, including Student Government Association leaders.
Amid classes and midterm exams, AUC students gathered at King Chapel as early as 7 a.m. to stand in line for Tuesday’s event, which was scheduled for around 1 p.m. An overflow of dozens of students unable to get in were surprised by Harris, who greeted them for a few minutes before hitting the stage. Harris told the students that she was proud of them and counting on them.
During the day’s main event, Harris was greeted with roaring applause in the at-capacity two-floor chapel that holds up to 2,500 people. The vice president took questions from moderators and students on various issues, including policing, gun violence, voting rights and abortion.
Harris acknowledged that young people today have endured a great deal of trauma in the past few years, including the police murder of George Floyd and countless mass shootings. When she asked the audience of students to raise their hands if they ever participated in a school gun safety drill, an overwhelming majority of them did.
Pointing out that she was in Georgia, Harris condemned Republican state officials who she said enacted election laws to “intentionally” suppress Black and young voters. She specifically called out a law passed in 2021 that bans volunteers from handing out water and food to people waiting in line to vote.
Harris drew enthusiastic applause when discussing the “hypocrisy” of states that ban abortion but also have disproportionate rates of Black maternal mortality, and when she condemned the banning of books and censuring of Black history lessons. She said Republican leaders are trying to “distract us and divide us” and “don’t have a plan” for the nation’s future.
Harris urged the students to use their civic power to push back against the attacks on the freedoms they value most, repeating a phrase she used earlier with students in the overflow room: “I am really counting on you.”
After the nearly 50-minute conversation, Morehouse College students told theGrio they felt inspired by the vice president’s visit.
Elijah Megginson, a junior English major, said he found Harris’ remarks to be “provoking,” particularly on the issues of abortion rights, health care, and gun violence.
“All of those issues are pretty prevalent in today’s time and in my communities. And to see that she cares about them so profoundly has really shown me that she’s for my cause and for my community’s cause,” said Megginson, who is part of student government and an editor of the campus newspaper, The Maroon Tiger.
The paper’s editor-in-chief, senior Austin “Auzzy” Byrdsell, told theGrio, “It’s hard to put into words” what the vice president’s visit to the AUC meant for the student body, particularly for the student journalists writing for the newspapers of Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta.
“A lot of our reporters don’t get the opportunities to report on something as grand as a vice president coming to visit somewhere,” said Byrdsell. “When she comes, and she brings this publicity, it also gives our students an opportunity to report on things you wouldn’t get to report on as a student journalist. It opens the doors for a lot of great opportunities.”
Most of all, said Byrdsell, “Having an HBCU graduate here on campus is just another reminder of what we’re capable of,” adding it’s “why we should not be in the shadows [and] why we should always be embraced and funded.”
Reflecting on bans of Black history curriculums in states like Florida, the Morehouse student told theGrio that HBCUs are needed now more than ever “because we have to be educated properly…when you have students coming through grade school who are learning incorrect things about American history.”
To mark HBCU Week at the White House on Monday, Harris and Biden met with the White House Board of Advisors on HBCUs to discuss the implementation of the record $7 billion invested in HBCUs by the Biden-Harris administration and what more could be done to close the gap in funding and resources between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions.
The board’s chair, Dr. Tony Allen, told theGrio after Monday’s meeting that the president and vice president not only kept their word on uplifting HBCUs but have helped “elevate” their profile on the national stage.
“Vice President Harris, in particular, is the best and quintessential example of that. She is showing up across the HBCU community in big ways,” said Allen, who is president of Delaware State University, an HBCU.
“Little girls and little boys get to dream in a much different way because the first Black woman [and] the first HBCU grad, is sitting in the White House as vice president.”
In her parting words to students at King Chapel on Tuesday, Harris said what she wanted most for them was that they not take no for an answer and that they dismiss notions that they are “too young” to take action on the issues that matter to them.
“Know that it is worth it to lead, to be engaged, to organize, to mobilize. Know what you already know, which is that you are role models,” she said. “I am so very optimistic about what we can do and what we will do – because we’re all in this together.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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