Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hate Crime in Daytona Beach: The Continuing Pertinence of Mary McLeod Bethune

News of a horrible hate crime in Daytona Beach. According to Mark I. Johnson and Seth Robbins, “Driver Charged with Hate Crime after Bicyclist Run Down,” yesterday Thomas Darryl Cosby was charged with a hate crime after he deliberately ran down an African-American woman the day before ( Simply because she is black.

The allegation is that, Monday evening, Cosby ran his sedan off the street in Daytona Beach, careening into Mekeda Cato, who suffered a badly broken leg and internal injuries. His car then crashed, at which point, Cosby emerged from it, inciting bystanders to racial violence and shouting that African Americans should be returned to Africa.

This story catches my attention for a number of reasons. First, it’s a story illustrating the violence to which minority communities are still all too frequently subjected. And when such events occur, news coverage is often spotty and localized. We all, as part of the body politic, need to listen more carefully to the stories told by members of various minority communities about violence to which they are subjected, simply because they belong to a marginalized group.

Second, Steve and I lived for over a year in Port Orange, which happens to be where Mr. Cosby also lives. In fact, we own a house there, one we have been unable to sell, since we acquired it as a result of promises made to us that were revoked after we made the crucial decision to put ourselves in debt by purchasing the house.

So I feel a certain personal connection with this story. We often biked along the sidewalks of this city and neighboring ones, including Daytona Beach.

Third, as readers of this blog know, I have a very strong interest in the life and work of that important 20th-century African-American educator, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Dr. Bethune founded a college in Daytona Beach, now known as Bethune-Cookman University.

As various postings on this blog have noted, Dr. Bethune developed a powerful pedagogical theory underscoring the links between education and participatory democracy. As did Bayard Rustin, the African-American Quaker thinker-activist whose work I have also cited frequently, Dr. Bethune considered American democracy unfinished business.

Both of these prophetic black leaders noted that democracy is an ideal that has not yet been fully realized. Both maintained that democracy will be realized—will be extended, will move from ideal to real—as the body politic recognizes that some groups within our society are disenfranchised and must be brought to the table.

Both Dr. Bethune and Bayard Rustin stressed the need for safe spaces in which marginal communities can come together with the mainstream community for dialogue, interaction, and development of a vision of the common good that will serve the needs of all. Dr. Bethune built such town-gown meetings into the educational philosophy and practice of the college she founded.

In these meetings, Dr. Bethune modeled the kind of inclusivity that she challenged American democracy to develop. Dr. Bethune’s town-gown meetings gave no privileged place to any group. In a time and place in which whites were expected to occupy seats of honor and blacks to sit at the back of the room, Dr. Bethune opened her doors to everyone, with the provision that people sit where they could find seating.

By eradicating preferential seating—a radical act in the time and place in which she lived—Mary McLeod Bethune demonstrated to her community what participatory democracy is all about: it’s about bringing everyone to the table, providing an equal place for everyone, and listening respectfully to everyone across lines that divide us. Dr. Bethune’s town-gown meetings abolished the lines that divide, at least for the space of the meeting itself.

In the leadership team she developed for her college, Dr. Bethune also sought to model such inclusivity and such abolition of racial lines. Dr. Bethune’s leadership team deliberately brought together people from across racial lines. She stressed the need for her students to be taught by people from all racial backgrounds, from all walks of life, since they would be functioning in a pluralistic society.

As the story from Daytona Beach that begins this posting illustrates, Florida still struggles, along with the rest of the nation, to build participatory democracy. Racial divisions remain strong in Daytona Beach, and in many parts of Florida.

As I have noted before, Bishop Timothy Whitaker, bishop of the Florida United Methodist Conference which sponsors Bethune-Cookman University, has a premier chance today to develop a model that would put into practice the recent UMC General Conference’s challenge to Methodists to educate themselves and others about discrimination. The university founded by Mary McLeod Bethune, which is under Bishop Whitaker’s pastoral jurisdiction, offers a rich opportunity for Bishop Whitaker and Florida Methodists to develop workshops and educational programs that explore marginalization and its effects in Florida communities.

With the heritage bequeathed by its founder, Bethune-Cookman University can continue to play a significant role in modeling participatory democracy and in educating for participatory democracy both locally and internationally. The recent decision of the United Methodist Church to place the current president of Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, on its University Senate is another opportunity for Dr. Bethune's university to demonstrate to the church at large what Dr. Bethune’s legacy means in practice. Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed is a distinguished African-American educator and a Methodist leader. Her placement on this important Methodist university body holds much promise to bring the legacy of Dr. Bethune into a wider community.

As the story of Mr. Cosby’s horrific assault on Ms. Cato indicates, we have much work to do—and Florida has much work to do—to overcome violence against minorities in our communities. What better way to begin the process than by following the path set before us by Mary McLeod Bethune—by developing safe spaces to bring various communities together for dialogue; by developing inclusive structures of educational leadership that model the kind of inclusivity we seek to teach students; and by moving our churches’ rhetoric about social healing beyond the rhetorical level to actual practice?

And, it goes without saying, such new models of educational leadership in church-sponsored colleges and universities absolutely have to deal with questions of marginalization due to sexual orientation. I’m reminded of this crucial need in Florida by a recent email I received from Chuck Wolfe, president of Victory Fund, a Florida political organization committed to pursuing rights for the LGBT community in Florida.

The email I received begins by stating,

Not every state with a big LGBT community is friendly to LGBT rights. Take Florida – where it’s still legal to fire employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity alone. Gays and lesbians also can’t adopt, and committed same-sex couples have zero partnership rights.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that Florida is the largest state to have never elected an openly LGBT state legislator.

There’s work to do in Florida. I’m pleased that the school founded by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is on the scene, continuing to embody the ideals of Dr. Bethune. I encourage Bishop Whitaker and Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed to continue developing Dr. Bethune’s educational model for a local community in which the need is obviously so acute. With the historic first represented by Mr. Obama's bid for the presidency, we have a chance today for a renewed dialogue about race (and other forms of marginalization) in American democracy. Institutions like Bethune-Cookman University, with the rich legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, have a singular opportunity to contribute to this dialogue.

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