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"We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force." My Last Will and Testament

Scurlock Studio photo, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

These words were spoken by a woman who advised four presidents, who spearheaded a women’s movement, fought for health care for the poor, and who was totally committed to education, especially the education of young black women.

That woman was Mary McLeod Bethune.

In her last will and testament she wrote, "We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends."

We are all very familiar with larger than life portraits of black leaders—primarily male, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and most of us can at least quote from his "I have a dream" speech. We often cite powerful black male leaders like Frederick Douglass,  Paul Robeson or Malcolm X.  

Too often, one of the most powerful women in our nation’s history is overlooked. This is the woman who was the mentor to Dorothy Height.

This was a woman who trail-blazed a path to become the founder of, and only woman in, FDR's "black cabinet"

One of the most well-known members and only woman among the young, ambitious men was Ms. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune. "Ms. Bethune was a Republican who changed her party allegiance because of Franklin Roosevelt.". Ms. Bethune was very closely tied to the community and believed she knew what the African Americans really wanted. She was looked upon very highly by other members of the cabinet, and the younger men called her "Ma Bethune." Ms. Bethune was a personal friend of Mrs. Roosevelt and, uniquely among the cabinet, had access to the White House.
Bethune entering the Whitehouse
Bethune played a dual role as close and loyal friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt respected Bethune to the extent that the segregation rules at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in 1938, being held in Birmingham, Alabama, were changed on Roosevelt's request so she could sit next to Bethune. Roosevelt frequently referred to Bethune as "her closest friend in her age group." Bethune, in her turn took it upon herself to disperse the message of the Democratic Party to black voters, and make the concerns of black people known to the Roosevelts at the same time. She had unprecedented access to the White House through her relationship with the First Lady. She used it to form a coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, but which came to be known as the Black Cabinet. The role of the Black Cabinet was to serve as an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people in America. It gathered talented blacks in positions within federal agencies, creating the first collective of black people enjoying higher positions in government than ever before. It also served to show to voters that the Roosevelt administration cared about black concerns. The group gathered in Bethune's office or apartment and met informally, rarely keeping minutes. Although as advisers they had little role in creating public policy, they were a respected leadership among black voters and were able to influence political appointments and disbursement of funds to organizations that would benefit black people.

In Mary McLeod Bethune: Race woman, Joyce Hanson wrote:

Bethune's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt greatly enhanced Bethune's status and gave her greater access to political leaders than other black advisers in the Roosevelt administration. More important, as a government administrator, Bethune learned about the inner workings of the American political process firsthand and gained knowledge she would use to bring African American men and women into the process and to keep issues of concern to African Americans on the national political agenda.
Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt

Bethune expanded her political connections by serving as well on various nonpartisan committees dealing with black children and education between 1928 and 1933. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge named her as a delegate to a child welfare conference held in Washington, D.C. President Herbert Hoover later named her as a member of his National Committee on Child Welfare, an extension of the American Child Health Association (ACHA). As a member of the ACHA committee, Bethune worked with other members to design national surveys on health conditions, infant mortality, and public health programs. The dismal results of these surveys led to the establishment of Child Health Day, a campaign to improve America's milk supply, institute training programs for midwives, and lobby for legislation to regulate child labor.


When Bethune switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat, she led thousands of other black Americans to do the same. She is one of the people we have to thank for the solid black Democratic voting bloc we have today.

This was a woman who never bit her tongue, but who knew the inner workings of Washington politics, and moved with ease between the classroom and four presidential administrations.

Today is her birthday.  

When I was a child I attended two segregated schools in the south. We didn’t need a "Negro History Week" or a "Black History Month"—since we were taught about the accomplishments of African-Americans all year round as part of the normal curriculum.  We were taught about men and women who against all odds had achieved both stature and acclaim. They were held up to us as examples to follow and emulate. I took for granted that students in integrated schools elsewhere were getting the same education. I was wrong. I thought that now that we have a whole month dedicated to Black history (albeit the shortest one) that those left out of history have now been included. Wrong again.

I am surprised each semester when I teach an introductory course in Women's Studies how few leading women of color my students can name. Asked to name powerful black women in history most have a very short list—Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks (who is still being falsely portrayed as simply a woman who was too tired to give up her seat on a bus and not as the political activist she actually was).

We don’t hear enough about Ida B. Wells, or Ella Baker (organizer with Bayard Rustin of the March on Washington). We forget about the groundbreaking politics of Shirley Chisholm, and Barbara Jordan.

I think it's time to correct the large gaps in our awareness of black women, and other women of color in our history. All of us in this nation, no matter our color, stand on the shoulders of those foremothers. Too often I hear the phrase "minorities and women" as if women only means white women. When we speak of the first wave women's suffrage, or the second wave women's movement, rarely do we address how exclusionary both waves were, or the women like Bethune who stood up to organize their sisters to fight sexism and racism.

Bethune understood the importance of political participation. In the early 1900s, the battle for women's suffrage was underway, but there was little role for African-American women, especially in the South. In 1912 Bethune joined the Equal Suffrage League, an offshoot of the National Association of Colored Women. In an era when even African-American men couldn't vote, a frustrated Mary had to sit back and watch as white-dominated organizations marched and protested nationwide. But in 1920, after passage of the 19th amendment, the time for action had come. Bethune believed that if African-American women were to vote, they could bring about change. Riding a bicycle she had used when she was raising money for her school, she went door to door raising money to pay the poll tax. Her night classes provided a means for African-Americans to learn to read well enough to pass the literacy test. Soon one hundred potential voters had qualified. The night before the election, eighty members of the KKK confronted Bethune, warning her against preparing African-Americans to vote. Bethune did not back down, and the men left without causing any harm. The following day, Bethune led a procession of one hundred African-Americans to the polls, all voting for the first time.

The story of her defiance of the Klan spread, and soon she was in demand as a speaker for the rights of African-Americans. Meeting many prominent people was in some ways an eye-opener for her. She met the African-American leader and scholar W.E.B. Dubois, and after hearing him comment that because of his race he couldn't even check out one of his own books from a southern library, she made her own school library available to the general public. This was the only free source of reading material for African-Americans in Florida at that time.

This is not ancient history. Mrs. Bethune died in 1955. Not 1855.  

Often critics of the status of black citizens in the U.S. scoff at us when we mention slavery and segregation, as if they were long ago and oh so far away. We are still trapped in that legacy. We are also moving forward spurred by those who broke more than just glass ceilings. They were not glass, they were solid stone. And yet, women like Mrs. Bethune moved mountains.

Her early history belied her future stature.

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, 10 years after the end of the civil war, in Mayesville, SC. Born into a large family she was the daughter of Samuel McLeod and Patsy McIntosh, former slaves.

Her parents were owned by different masters. Before their marriage her father Samuel had to work to "buy" his bride. Samuel and his wife Patsy had 17 children in all. Sadly, while they were slaves the children were sold to other masters when they became old enough to work.

Her parents could not read or write, but after emancipation, worked hard to re-assemble their children on a small farm that Samuel was able to purchase.
And Mary got the opportunity to learn to read.

When Mary was about eleven, the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church opened a school for African-American children. It was about four miles from her home, and the children had to walk back and forth to school, but Mary wanted to go. Her mother commented that some of the children had to be forced to attend, but not Mary, who was well aware of her family's relative poverty. Mary saw education as the key to improving the lives of African-Americans. An incident that occurred when she was quite young may explain this. Mary picked up a book while she was playing with a white child whose parents employed Mary's mother. The white child grabbed the book and told Mary she couldn't have it because African-Americans couldn't read. For Mary, education became the answer to the question, how can African-Americans move up the ladder in American society?

Education is still one of the key concerns in our communities.

Take some time out today and watch this documentary on Bethune's history.

Mary McLeod Bethune-Part One

Mary McLeod Bethune-Part Two

Mary McLeod Bethune-Part Three

At a time when forces from the right wing are unleashing a dreadful assault on women, on teachers and our children’s education, and we still have too many areas where there is defacto segregation, we must use our power to move forward to craft the world that Bethune envisioned and fought for, up until the time of her death.

So let us all pay tribute today to a great citizen, and matriarch of our nation.

Happy Birthday "Ma Bethune"!

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jul 10, 2011 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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