On May 10, 2017 at Bethune Cookman Univeristy (BCU), Americans watched both a contortionist and an arsonist dance together in celebration of decorum’s defeat. I fell in love with BCU  many years ago as I walked upon its campus as a freshman in the late 70's. While I was at  BCU,  our moral and spiritual educations were so important, that  as freshmen, we were mandated to attend what was called "Chapel" each Monday. After your freshman year, it became such a major part of your routine, you continued going.

At my beloved Bethune Cookman's 2017  graduation ceremony, the long-term survival needs of all HBCUs were put asunder by passions gone awry, and distant manipulations of the political class. At that ceremony, a small school of only about 4000 students, which a majority of Americans had never heard of was given an opportunity to showcase its positive legacy stemming from the reverence our nation has for its founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. That opportunity came in the form of its influential commencement speaker, who is  the highest ranking education official in America (the most powerful country in the world), the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Instead of Bethune Cookmans graduates showing themselves to the world as being exemplified  future leaders of America, exuding grace, dignity, decorum  and respect.... to an America that did not know they exist.. to a possible extension of its support base; they instead, gave America their backs, their verbal insults... their booing.

Universities have often been the linchpin of conscious raising protest to help best define the cultural and political wars of a generation. One can easily dismiss the civil disobedience and antics witnessed at Bethune Cookman as knee-jerk immaturity brought on by youthful avarice, which is,  action before thought. One can certainly say that the students actions are largely driven by emotions rather than pragmatism, lacking any thought of  what is the best strategy to accomplish their ends. Nor does anyone know what the "ends" are that were sought.  But for our youth, the ends are rarely considered.. it’s all about the means, which often leave protest a wasteful exercise. We doth wear our emotions on our sleeves a bit too much, and get swept up into causes that are ultimately a group  electric slide of synchronized tilting at windmills.

While observing the student’s behavior toward the Secretary of Education at the 2017 Bethune Cookman  graduation, along with my witnessing the shortsightedness of it, I was  forced to remember the younger me, the me that arrived on that campus  in the late 70s. I arrived there from Bartow Senior High school, where I was a starting football player, member of the track team, basketball team, student council, chorus and ROTC.  Accept for the  person in Bartow who came back to the community after a stint in Vietnam, or was returning from  college, where their engagement in the movement of the time was more coarse or hardened ; the civil rights movement in my town was more prodding, quiet and respectful. It was also quite successful.  Growing up on Magnolia Street, a stone’s throw to the Black High School (Union Academy); each evening,  sounds from the marching band were in the air.... sort of like living near FAMUs marching band,  or BCUs marching 100. I remember it like it was yesterday. As a little boy, I remember the opening of  Carver Recreation Center (first brick and motor recreation center in the black community). It was  a block away from my house, across the street from Union Academy.  Carver Recreation was named after George Washington Carver, the renown black inventor and activist. This was done with money from the city of Bartow, as a part of its newly expanded parks and recreation program.  I remember all of the local black leaders proudly walking around to tour the new facility. Shortly after that, my neighbor  a few houses down, Mr. George Gause ( a funeral director and owner of Gause Funeral Home)  became the first African American in the Southeastern United States to hold the office of Mayor. And in 1977, he became the first African American to sit on Polk County's School Board District III, appointed by Governor Rubin Askew. All of that was big news.  I lived on what I call "teachers row". Teachers were on each side of me as neighbors and down the street. They were all graduates of black colleges, either FAMU, BCC or some other HBCU.   Also, on my street a few houses down was  the famous Coach McKinney, the beloved football coach  for our dear Union Academy fighting tigers.

In Bartow, I watched my great grandparents Luncie and Henry Foster prosper as respected business owners. My maternal and paternal grandfathers' were entrepreneurs. They would pridefully say, “I aint working for no white man, I’ll work for myself”. Guess my entrepreneurial spirit was gleaned from watching them make their own way.  I saw guys in the community like Ken Riley and Major Hazelton attend FAMU and later get drafted to the NFL where they had long careers. I saw our race not only talk about equality or opportunity, but i saw men and women do what was necessary to make their own opportunities through hard work, perseverance, decorum and dignity; and making great strides once congress passed laws that eventually made  Jim Crow a thing of the pass.

When I arrived on Bethune Cookmans campus,  I was assigned (as a part of my orientation), the books of Black Nationalist like Eldridge Cleaver with  his “Soul on Ice” or Malcolm X; then great story tellers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin. I was never exposed to those readings before. This is where the black experience, as it’s called, gets real. In the life of most blacks in America, unconsciously or (at times) in your face, early on...you  get  subtle or not so subtle messages that you are less than. Those dog whistles are to make us feel as though we are the inferior race. To be candid, that was the plantation owners tool for controlling its "property".  That form of psychological damage makes it difficult for many to ever know or realize their full potential in a free society.  What black colleges do for many of us  is breakaway the grip that the lie of inferiority holds unto the souls of many black folk in America. It frankly is a form of necessary deprogramming for many, by opening your eyes to who you are and what your value is as a black in America. They lay bare the existentialism of your cultural journey in the world, from its beginning. During such an introduction into our history as orientation, we learn that whites are the oppressor, and we the oppressed. Yes, that's harsh, but is learned nonetheless. And dare I say, history supports this view as accurate and an undisputed fact.  This awakening is a powerful and necessary step to unleash the potential of blacks in America by lifting many out of a form of self loathing.. not knowing the many contributions of our race to not only America, but the world at large. For many years, not only were black students denied an education in their own history and contributions, but that history was withheld from everyone.. a whitewashing of history.  These facts are what made the case for Black History Month, and the goal of teaching more black history in our schools. Consequently, there has been a quiet acknowledgment that for far too long our society has consciously driven the message to black youth that they are inferior. To this day, that psychological dynamic plays out in many and sometimes tragic ways.

When I graduated from  Bethune Cookman and moved to live with my dad in  San Diego California (Poway,  Rancho Bernardo), which is a very affluent community, and began my job search, I learned of the limits and blind spots of certain aspects of the orientation and my  so called black experience.  First, while at a black college, it’s pretty easy to forget that the world is not totally black… that blacks are only about 13 percent of the overall population. At a black college, its pretty easy to limit your life to the social and cultural parameters of black college life where nearly 95 percent (in those days) of everything is black.  After leaving, you learn that, despite what Farrakhan said in his lengthy speech on Bethune Cookmans campus, all white people are not the devil. You learn that you will have to perhaps convince someone of a different race or culture to give you your first job.

My father, a former executive at Solar Turbines., Inc. in San Diego, helped arrange a plethora of interviews for me with top executives with companies like Cubic, Inc., Hewett Packard, Teledyne, Inc. and others. What I learned was that, in the real world, everything is not about race. I learned that what matters most is whether or not your skill set is of benefit to a business bottom line, not the color of your skin. Later as a businessman, I’ve learned that in business, money is fungible. It does not care about the color of its owner. What matters is that you have contributions or an idea that is of value. And, ultimately in life we all learn that no matter the race or  the culture, we have more in common than we have differences. We all want our children to have opportunities we did not have, we want our children and family to be healthy, many of us pray to the same God, we care about our spouses.... siblings and extended family, we want a roof over our heads, good schools, food to eat, safe water, jobs that pay living wages, freedom and public safety.

What the students at BCC don’t know yet is that, there is nothing positive about getting national press by being disrespectful and rude to the highest ranking education official in the most powerful country in the world. There is no benefit in it.  One day they will know that colleges do not survive because of tuition or alumni donations. They depend upon Federal government and state government for major funding for operations, programs, new construction and expansion.  They will have to acknowledge that Bethune Cookman has received funding and critical support from Presidents and Governors from all political stripes. For instance, today in Florida,  a Republican ran legislature has given BCU  great support over the years and continues to do so, although Bethune Cookman College (BCC) aka BCU, as I like to call it,  is not a state college.  What they will learn as they mature, is that much of life depends on relationships.. the building and maintenance of those relationships. They will learn that you will not always agree with those you have relationships with, but you will have to find that thing that you have in common and work feverishly on that thing together.

One can disagree with Mrs. Devos political ideology. One can agree that she has had little to no way knowing or understanding black colleges, as that is not a world she inhabits. That’s not her fault, just a matter of like experience and environment she was born to. One can also agree, that although it was done  in a clumsy manner, she reached out to Bethune Cookman College... not with a clinched fist, but with an open hand, to know more about the school and use the power of her office on its behalf. One can agree that with her clumsy start, it was clear what she didn’t know,  and that in acknowledging her own shortcomings, she came to BCC to learn  more about the college. That much could be gleaned from the speech the students would not listen to.

We can agree that Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was not a millionaire, and did not build BCC by herself. She did it with the kindness of political leaders of all stripes, the United Methodist church and philanthropist who believed in the wrongness of denying blacks from getting an education for so long. And last but not least, sometimes good hearted, Christian white people say dumb things, not because they are racist, but because they simply don’t have any way of understanding what life is like traveling the earth in our skin, having to withstand how society (at times) reacts to our skin color. They can’t possibly know our experience.. how could they?

The students, similarly to the “black lives matter” movement, will have to ask themselves… now what? Who benefited and how? Who did this help and who did it hurt? To the latter, they will mature and learn that they not only hurt themselves, but also the students coming after them. Their actions diminished whatever opportunities there were to be gained at that moment to help the school develop relationships needed to grow the school, and keep it open and flourishing at a time when black colleges are struggling or closing. They did not look like or act like college educated future leaders of America, giving ammunition to decision makers who question the need for black colleges in 2017. They will now further question the quality and purpose of the education provided there.. and see it as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Yes, that conversation is going on in the halls of power. Hence, black colleges are closing.  I have been immensely blessed to go to Bethune Cookman College and have my conscious raised and my confidence embolden to tackle a world that is not always fair or kind to people of color. HBCUs are vital for many blacks in America, as it was for this writer. But, we must better protect its legacy. The students will one day learn that you can disagree with someone, but also respect their office… because at the end of the day; except for helping news outlets sell newspapers, enhancing someones social media presence, or increase the number of clicks a websites get; all the behavior displayed at the commencement on May 10th will do for you, is make you an also-ran …ending with nothing to show for the experience,  except for a T-shirt. Really?

Michael Dobson, is a long time Tallahassee based governmental relations professional and columnist; President/CEO of Dobson, Craig and Associates (aka Dobson and Associates), Chairman of Florida  Voters Campaign, PAC, and renewable energy policy leader as founder of Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association. Can be reached at michael@michaeldobson.org or Michael@dobsonandcraig.com

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