The US secretary of education faced jeers when she spoke at Bethune-Cookman University. And rightly so
There are many reasons why one might jeer Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary. Perhaps you find her advocacy for guns in schools due to the ever present grizzly threat to be credulous. Maybe you think that her advocacy for charter schools – and the deleterious effects that these have had in her home state of Michigan – is worthy of complaint. Or maybe what gets your goat is DeVos’s support for vouchers, which takes public money and allows it to be used for tuition at private institutions.
If you are a student at a historically black college or university (HBCU), however, what is likely the most galling to you was a comment made by DeVos a couple of months ago. After meeting with leaders of HBCUs at the White House, DeVos released a statement:
HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.
The sitting education secretary of the United States of America seriously put out a statement equating the creation of colleges and universities that were designed to maintain state-sanctioned segregation to the present-day debate over “school choice” in the form of vouchers and charter schools. It is a sentiment that is breathtaking in its ignorance, but given the context of the White House administration that DeVos serves, perhaps not so much.
It is in this context that we should place what happened at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday. There, DeVos was booed heavily as she, shockingly, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the institution. The booing was so loud that Bethune-Cookman president Edison Jackson admonished the crowd, threatening them with the cancellation of the event. He explained the motives of awarding DeVos and inviting her to be the commencement speaker:
We have always been in the business of making friends, and if you don’t have friends, it’s very difficult to raise money. Her department controls roughly 80% of Title IV monies, as well as grants. So why wouldn’t we want to make friends?
There are many ways that a college or university could “make friends” in order to “raise money” that do not involve inviting someone so ignorant of recent history in the US to address students at an event that they have worked hard toward for years.
After all, it is why institutions of higher education have departments of government relations, including Bethune-Cookman. And one certainly does not need to engage in such outlandish puffery like the Bethune-Cookman administration did, where they sent out a press release comparing DeVos to the school’s founder and namesake, who built the university up while being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan on a regular basis.
But that is beside the point:
During the speech, a sophomore, Bobbie Luke, right fist aloft, was escorted out of the Ocean Center. He told CNN he didn’t know why he was removed. “I’m standing with my seniors, man. No one likes her, man. Period,” he said. “I don’t like what she said, and nothing at the end of the day is going to change my opinion.”
Luke is not wrong. HBCUs have a diverse tradition, but one of the pillars of HBCU history is the solidarity and hard work that they gave to the civil rights movement. Some of the movement’s most recognized leaders – such as Fisk University student and future US congressman John Lewis – came from these institutions forged from necessity in the hottest fires of the Jim Crow south. These campuses acted as centers for organizing, culture and safety during a period where the simple act of registering people to vote could result in the end of someone’s life.
Just as they did during the 1950s and 1960s, HBCUs continue to play a large role in the latest iterations of organizing around justice and equality. You would be hard-pressed to find an HBCU that had not hosted or provided aid to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But beyond that, HBCUs have been at the center of economic struggle as well. Tougaloo College, for example, has been an ongoing springboard of organizing for workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, who have been fighting for union recognition for years.
The legacy of HBCUs is that they continue to produce people who will leave college and be at the forefront of progress and community change. There’s a long line from Mary McLeod Bethune to our present-day working class intellectuals such as Tressie McMillan Cottom, and you can trace that through places like Bethune-Cookman University.
Giving a platform to those that would undermine that legacy – and defending such a choice as strongly as Edison Jackson has – is simply a disgrace. In the end, you really got to wonder about the kind of educator that sees Betsy DeVos as an ally while treating Bobbie Luke as a threat.
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