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Students, alumni and community groups fight to prevent Betsy DeVos from giving a commencement address next week at an historically black university

May 4, 2017

Betsy DeVos is slated to deliver the spring commencement address next Wednesday (May 10) at a private historically black university in Daytona Beach, Bethune-Cookman University.

This announcement has received a tremendous amount of push back, especially after the Secretary of Education stated in February that historically black colleges and universities were “the real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”

“Colleges of choice. I mean, we had no other choice but to create HBCUs,” Cynthia Slater, president of the Daytona Beach NAACP Branch, said.

The NAACP, students and residents marched for about a mile on Wednesday from New Mt. Zion Church in Daytona Beach, showing their disapproval of DeVos as BCU’s commencement speaker.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida chapter of the NAACP called the scheduled speech a “slap in the face to minorities, women and all communities of color.”

Students and Alumni have created a petition to demand that the university dis-invite the Secretary of Education. The petition, in part, reads:

Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created because African Americans were excluded from mainstream institutions. Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs. 

Having DeVos speak at the commencement ceremony is an insult to the BCU graduating class, students, alumni, family, friends, and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy.We, the proud alumni of Bethune-Cookman University, do not want Betsy DeVos to have a seat at our table. Please rescind her invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony. 

For years the school privatization movement, which has included Betsy DeVos as one of its champions, has attempted to win over the black community and push for “school choice” or school privatization. In a recent article on Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford made the following point: 

“Never in history have Black Americans marched, rallied or petitioned for private school vouchers.”

Evelyn Bethune, granddaughter of school founder Mary McLeod Bethune, said a commencement is the wrong forum for DeVos because it should be a “very sacred ceremony.”

“Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and for their families,” said Bethune, who graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1979 and whose grandson will graduate with a master’s degree next week. “That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited.”

Still, Evelyn Bethune takes exception to school administrators comparing the work of her grandmother to what DeVos stands for today. She said her grandmother was a strong proponent of education while being able to relate to common people.

“I don’t see any of that in Ms. DeVos,” said Bethune, who still lives in Daytona Beach and heads up an educational foundation and education consulting firm. “I’ve looked at her history, I’ve looked at the things that she has been connected to and I don’t see any resemblance to anything related to my grandmother.”

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