DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Scores of students graduating from the historically black Bethune-Cookman University booed U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with many turning their backs on her as she delivered the keynote commencement speech Wednesday.
The protest came after students and officials with the NAACP and the nation’s teachers unions mounted a campaign to block DeVos from speaking, and other activists lined the sidewalk outside the venue Wednesday to ensure the Education Secretary understood she wasn’t welcome, the Orlando Sentinel reports.
Throughout her talk, DeVos faced students shouting “liar!” and “just go” and roughly half of the 380 graduates turned their backs to the stage to show their opposition.
Betsy DeVos says she’s going to visit Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s gravesite.
Bethune Cookman’s students were *not* pleased. pic.twitter.com/pARTNDv2s5
— Philip Lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) May 10, 2017
The behavior was so bad B-CU President Edison Jackson threatened to take action if students did not quiet down.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” Jackson said.
“Choose which way you want to go.”
— Muhammad (@330Kingish) May 11, 2017
In her speech, DeVos praised Bethune-Cookman for helping minority students overcome adversity to improve their lives, and spoke about how the school’s legacy is built on addressing the needs of black students.
“We should aspire to make all of America’s institutions mirror that model – a singular focus on the unique needs of students,” she said.
B-CU officials invited DeVos to the commencement during a gathering of historically black college and university leaders in Washington in February during the same meeting the Education Secretary angered many in the black community by describing HBCUs as the first pioneers of school choice. Many criticized the statement, pointing out that HBCUs were created out of racism, and not choice.
“We are very aware of the statement – the misstatement – that was made several months ago, and this is for Bethune-Cookman University an opportunity to engage the secretary, to engaged and to educate the secretary about historically black institutions,” the school’s chief operating officer, Albert Mosley, told Politico.
American Federation of Teachers president Rhonda Weingarten, Florida Education Association vice president Fed Ingram, and the NAACP Florida State Conference attempted to pressure school officials into canceling DeVos’ speech, but Jackson defended the invitation on campus radio Tuesday.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Jacksons said, citing the importance of working with education leaders with influence. “The truth of the matter is that she is passionate about education.”
DeVos on Wednesday spoke about the school’s founder, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, including her plans to visit Bethune’s home and grave site, and struggled to get her point across as students and parents booed and shouted “No!” The Washington Post reports.
“Dr. Bethune believed students – you – had an unlimited potential to affect positive change, and with good reason. She’d done it herself,” DeVos said.
“As you leave, each of you will be called to embody courage in different ways and to rise to different challenges. The way you answer those calls will determine not just the future of you and your homes, but of your communities, this great nation and your world. …
“The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mind-set of grace. We must first listen, then speak – with humility – to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree.”
Many students at the commencement, not surprisingly, did not take the message to heart.
“She made racist comments about HBCUs, she doesn’t know anything about us, and she has the nerve to come down here and speak to us,” graduate Donjele Simpson told the Post. “And then she has the nerve to speak about Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy. What does she know about that?”