Bethune founder would be appalled at Devos invitation to HBCU

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It’s been confirmed. Betsy Devos, the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education who believes that HBCUs came out of “school choice,” rather than the anti-black systems of oppression which forced African-Americans to create their own institutions, will give the commencement speech at the beloved historically black Bethune Cookman University.  

To the shock of many alumni and advocates alike, the trend of HBCU leadership succumbing to the new administration’s societal pressure to fall in line is not only discouraging but highlights the contrived notion that assimilation is somehow the best, if not the only, option for a seat at the table.

–Bethune Cookman University selects Betsy Devos as commencement speaker–

Well, 400 years of history and Devos’ already tainted record on policy around education lets us know that if we continue to play in the devil’s playground, we will leave burned and battered. What’s more, we will hear the slamming sounds of more doors closing at our beloved colleges and universities.

Bethune Cookman College President Edison Jackson released two statements and a video montage yesterday in an effort to respond to the thousands of calls, emails, and concerns around the choice to have Devos speak for commencement. In a very strategic and political way, Jackson failed to address the reasons why people were upset at his decision to invite Devos in the first place and instead chose to explain the importance of extending the olive branch while claiming that the university’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune herself, would have done the same.

Although he is right that Bethune often invited the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Franklin D. Roosevelt — who had very different views than her — to compare that to Devos is quite ludicrous. In just a short time in office, Devos downplayed the real reason why HBCUs were founded and allowed a budget to be proposed that would in fact hurt HBCUs more than most universities. This is the true definition of creating a false equivalency. Edison is not fighting for funding; he is trying to win PR with a president who once said during a campaign rally, “look at my African-American over here.” 

Bethune in her day fought at a time prior to the establishment of HBCU protections and civil rights. She met with the likes of Rockefeller and Roosevelt out of sheer necessity, as she was fighting against the inequality in federal funding provided to teach black students in comparison to white students.

In the book “Mary McLeod Bethune in Florida: Bringing Social Justice to the Sunshine State”, the author details her interactions during those tumultuous times. Bethune would leverage partnerships with Rockefeller and Roosevelt to create a fundraising campaign and used their support to gain buy-in from the white community and state government for funding purposes. Her efforts even earned her the title “racial harmonizer.”

In 1944, Bethune was also very instrumental in not only helping to launch the United Negro College Fund but also used her relationships with the two men to bring them on board as supporters, with Rockefeller serving as the chairman of the Council from 1944-1959. By the end of the first two years, the UNCF under this partnership would raise over $1.5 million for the 27 HBCUs that were members.

Bethune was a strategist. Edison is not. What Edison is doing is nothing more than pushing assimilation over resistance, with the hopes that when the budget cuts come that BCU will somehow be spared or even benefit in some way.

According to Trinice McNally, HBCU activist and Bethune Cookman University alum, the decision to have Devos deliver BCU’s commencement speech is more problematic than we think.

“Just two years ago, Governor Rick Scott was awarded the Mary McLeod Bethune Legacy Award. The same governor who committed $1.7 billion in federal government fraud, opposed expanding Medicaid to millions of low-income and minority people, and let’s not forget the cut of HBCU funding in the state of Florida — which primarily impacted black and brown people. We now find ourselves at the crossroads again,” McNally tells

The BCU graduate, like many other alumni, is demanding answers and accountability. In particular, she highlights Bethune’s fight and just how “privileged the ground that my founder sung spirituals to chase away white men in white hoods from burning down what we call home.”

“I’m sure some of these same white men will be accompanying her next week, just without the robes. Let’s not be fooled by wolves in sheep’s clothing; we don’t need any more photo opportunities from the Trump administration,” she added. “We may need more financial support, but what we don’t need is an insult and sheer embarrassment to educators worldwide to step foot on our beloved campus and insult our founder’s legacy.”

Darnell Walker, a 2005 graduate of BCU, echoed these same sentiments, stating, “The hardest for me to accept is knowing this is all about money; knowing our leadership and our ethics can be bought. I understand that our founder was a strategist, but I also know that if she were alive in 2017 to witness the atrocity in the demeaned value of education, she would be appalled at who the Secretary of Education is and why she was selected to speak at our beloved institution. I think the biggest question here is — why did it have to be her?”

As a graduate of two HBCUs, the history and legacy of our universities can no longer be tarnished with stains of our oppressors who want nothing more than a photo op, while erasing the black roots of our ancestors who died for the access to education — a civil right many apparently seem to take for granted. With proposed budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and federal Pell Grants, two programs that will affect black and brown people at a much higher rate than our white counterparts, the time to resist is now.  

The commencement speech at Bethune Cookman will for sure happen; however, it won’t go without protest, invoking the very spirit of Bethune, who fought so vigilantly against people like Devos.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for, TheGrio, JET,,, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.