Black faculty rally around Bethune-Cookman graduates

More than 200 black faculty members — including several from Atlanta-area colleges — have signed an open letter of support to the graduates of Bethune-Cookman University after the grads booed commencement speaker Betsy DeVos. 

“The world watched you protest the speaker you never should have had. We cheered as we saw so many of you refuse to acquiesce in the face of threats and calls for complicity. Your actions fit within a long tradition of black people fighting back against those who attack our institutions and our very lives with their anti-Black policies and Anglo-normative practices,” said the letter, which initially was published on a blog site.

“Betsy DeVos’ commitment to dismantling public education and her egregious framing of historically black colleges and universities as 'pioneers' in school choice are just two examples of why she should never have been invited to speak at an event celebrating black excellence.” 

Camika Royal, an assistant professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland and one of three principal authors of the letter, said the message was clear that the students needed support. 

“As a graduate of an HBCU, I know how important an education is for an individual, as well as a community,” Royal said. “So, to look at these Bethune-Cookman students have that moment taken away from them and see Betsy DeVos be held up as a speaker, was a slap in the face to them and their families.” 

DeVos, Donald Trump's secretary of education, was a controversial decision to begin with. Critics of the school’s decision to invite her point back to a February statement in which DeVos referred to black colleges as “pioneers of school choice,” asserting that the schools “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.” 

The remark seemed to ignore the fact that black colleges – like Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta – were direct responses to slavery and Jim Crow when blacks had fewer educational options. 

Even prior to her arrival on campus, petitions were circulated urging school president Edison Jackson to rescind the invitation.

“If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship,” Jackson wrote in an open letter to the college community, before the ceremony. 

In response, the Florida chapter of the NAACP called for Jackson to resign. 

On Wednesday, as DeVos began to address the 300 graduates of the university -- founded in 1904 by Mary McLeod Bethune with $1.50 in her pocket and five girls in a rented cabin -- the students began to boo and turn their backs on DeVos. 

As the booing mounted Jackson took the microphone from DeVos to admonish the students

“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” Jackson said. “Choose which way you want to go.” 

Royal watched it all from Baltimore and fumed. So, she, along with Yaba Blay, the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in political science at North Carolina Central University and Treva B. Lindsey, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, collectively penned the letter. 

They then placed a call to several hundred black scholars across the country to sign on. More than 200 did, including Imani Perry of Princeton and Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University. 

At least a dozen represented colleges in Georgia. 

Fahamu Pecou, an artist scholar at Emory University and adjunct art professor at Spelman College, said he signed the letter because the Jackson usurped “what should have been a time of celebration for a misguided political play.”

“Over the course of their college education, students are encouraged to interrogate existing sites of knowledge, to challenge conventions and to think freely. Their act of defiance demonstrated those principles in action,” Pecou said. “These young people represent our future. And I look forward to a world where leaders don't betray their values out of fear or in hopes of political favors. I not only sign in support but stand shoulder to shoulder with them to say... ‘nah.’"

Click here to read the full letter and see who signed it.

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