Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivers a commencement address to graduates at Bethune-Cookman University on May 10, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla.
John Raoux—AP
May 16, 2017 8:15 AM EDT

It’s commencement season. And college graduates across the country are reveling in this extraordinary ritual of spring. Parents beam with pride. Families, many of whom have traveled a great distance to attend graduation ceremonies, shout with joy as their love ones walk across the stage and receive their diploma. Their laughter and tears nourish the blooms of spring. Both mark new beginnings.

But this year has been a bit different. Graduates at Bethune-Cookman University, an historically black college founded by Mary McCloud Bethune in 1904, loudly protested their commencement speaker, Betsy DeVos. They booed as she urged them to learn from those “with whom [they] disagree…,” and to do so respectfully. Many turned their backs as she spoke.

Over 800 people signed a petition protesting Republican Senator John Cornyn‘s scheduled speech at Texas Southern University, another HBCU founded in 1947. To justify their decision to cancel Senator Cornyn’s speech, the TSU administration said, “Commencement exercises are special moments for our students, their families and the entire University. Every consideration is made to ensure that our student’s graduation day is a celebratory occasion and one they will remember positively for years to come.” They are absolutely right.

Commencements aren’t occasions to wage battles over ideological positions. They are rituals of celebration, a recognition of the achievements of the graduating class and a moment to urge them to embrace the challenges that lie before them. They are also occasions for families to forget, just for a brief moment, all of their difficulties and to celebrate, without distraction, the fact that someone they love has just received a college degree.

David Murray gets it right when he writes in the New York Times, commencement “isn’t the day to sit and listen to a controversial commencement speaker ostensibly invited so that students can learn from someone with whom they disagree. To the contrary, a commencement speaker is basically just there to remind students and parents that they have invested in an important institution, and to give a few encouraging words for graduates heading off into an unknown future.”

And this is especially true for black families. For many, this may be the first child to graduate college. Or, it is the latest instance of the families’ achievement: another child launched into the world. Why should they have to listen to someone who, by an association with Donald J. Trump, doubts their capacities or embraces policies that undermine the life chances of the students and families that have come to support them?

Just think about it. Black students graduate with $7,400 more debt on average than their white counterparts. And in just a few years that black-white debt gap triples to about $25,000. Some think they should sit by idly and listen to those who embrace policies that, in so many ways, sustain the status quo. Betsy DeVos, for instance, rolled back consumer protections for student loan borrowers. No wonder the students at Bethune-Cookman booed.

Republicans frame these protests in terms of “free speech.” Such behavior, they claim, is the latest example of liberal intolerance. That’s a mistake. What the protests reveal, more than anything else, is the increasing political consciousness of students who attend HBCUs. Their response portends what we should expect in 2018: organized young, black voters who are fed up. All of this is just a prelude to a different and an even more confrontational politics on the horizon. These black students are the canaries in the mine.

I recently delivered the commencement address at Claflin University, an HBCU founded in 1869 in Orangeburg, South Carolina. It was an amazing day–just unadulterated joy in this small town in one of the most conservative of states. I thought about the ritual of commencements, this ritual of spring and of new beginnings. So I ended my brief speech with these words:

I know the world cries out for visionaries, courageous women and men, who aren’t perfect — they are wounded in every way — but who dare to risk everything for a more just world. They reject the temptation of safety. These are the imaginative warriors, who understand that those in power want us to believe that the world as it is is all that we have. But you, the mighty class of 2017, stand in an old faith: a faith in the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. You understand that from the most unexpected places come a beauty and brilliance that can change the world.

You are that beauty. You are that brilliance. Now go out and transform the world.

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