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I received an early Mother’s Day gift a few days ago. The 2017 graduates of Bethune-Cookman College petitioned, pleaded, and begged their administration to rescind its invitation to United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to speak at their commencement. But the administration turned a deaf ear to them, the alumni, the NAACP, and countless others and proceeded with a graduation with Ms. DeVos at its center.

Indeed, they even gave DeVos an honorary degree! This was no mere speaking engagement where people might choose to attend or not. This was the day that represents the culmination of four or more years of hard work that they, their families, and friends have been dreaming of. And the students took a civic action that made me proud. When DeVos rose to speak many stood up and turned their backs on her. Students also booed throughout her address.

Some have argued that the students dishonored the university, but I would say it was the administration that dishonored the university. It dishonored the very memory of Mary McLeod Bethune, the university’s founder. Bethune built that university out of nothing. She was the daughter of enslaved African Americans born in Mayesville, South Carolina. She started Bethune School as a school for black girls that began in a space she rented for $11 a month. She built benches and desks from crates and used $1.50 to start the library. Bethune was known as the “First Lady of the Struggle” and to bring Betsy DeVos, whose major agenda is to destroy public education, to the school she founded is nothing short of an insult. I believe Mary McLeod Bethune smiled down on those students who took a stand.

“Far too often we talk about our young people as consumed with frivolous pursuits — posting selfies or engaging in Twitter wars — or worse, totally apathetic to the world around them. But I believe this generation is engaged deeply in fighting for justice and equality. This is the generation that has taken to the streets to shout ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This is the generation that shimmied up a flagpole to remove a state sanctioned symbol of hatred and racism, the Confederate flag.”

DeVos is infamously known for not being able to answer simple questions about the difference between achievement and growth during her confirmation hearings. After her confirmation, she went on to say that Historically Black Colleges and Universities were examples of “school choice.” That kind of ignorance is revolting and the Bethune-Cookman students’ response to having her as their commencement speaker was exactly what was called for. They took a stand!

Far too often we talk about our young people as consumed with frivolous pursuits — posting selfies or engaging in Twitter wars — or worse, totally apathetic to the world around them. But I believe this generation is engaged deeply in fighting for justice and equality. This is the generation that has taken to the streets to shout “Black Lives Matter.” This is the generation that shimmied up a flagpole to remove a state sanctioned symbol of hatred and racism, the Confederate flag. This is a generation that is being shot down in the street just for being Black. This is a generation that realized that having an African American occupy the Oval Office would never be enough to bring the nation to the realization that black people are fully human and entitled to all rights and responsibilities of citizenship in these United States. So on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, the graduates of Bethune-Cookman University represented their generation well and took a stand!

In response to their courageous action, the administration has followed the Trumpian style and claimed only 20 or so students stood and turned their backs on DeVos. One need only look at any of the news reports and see that many students participated in this act of civil disobedience. Click here, for example.

I don’t know what the president of Bethune-Cookman thought he would get from inviting someone from an administration that in 5 months has shown itself openly hostile to black people. The thought of currying favor with those people reminds me of how much we have NOT learned from our history. We have NEVER had a good result from trying to ingratiate ourselves to those who oppress, hate and despise us. The only time we have made any progress in the struggle for liberation is when we took a STAND!

Written by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies for the University of Wisconsin.

2 COMMENTS

  1. No, Gloria, by using phrases like “those people,” are showing that YOU are the one that has not learned from history.

    • She’s actually using it appropriately to refer to the administration mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I daresay she’s also being intentionally ironic to underscore her point. Which is exactly spot-on.

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