An intrepid educator takes her place as a role model for all
With a marble likeness of Mary McCleod Bethune newly installed in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol, all pro-democracy supporters have a new reason to celebrate.
Bethune is the first African American to be selected by a state to be represented in the hall, and her statue joins that of John Gorrie, inventor of an air-cooling machine, to represent the state of Florida. Bethune’s statue replaces that of a Confederate general.
Bethune is one of the most extraordinary people in American history. She possessed remarkable intelligence, impeccable ethics, and was so widely respected nationally that she became a trusted advisor to several presidents.
Bethune’s role as the leader of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” during the Great Depression allowed her to play a vital role in crafting the “New Deal” that made government more responsive to ordinary Americans.
Bethune was a proponent and practitioner of women’s equality at a time when the “natural inferiority” of women to men was assumed at the highest levels of society. Bethune was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage years before it was ratified by Congress in 1920; Florida did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1969.
Bethune was an uncompromising opponent of racial segregation when it was the law of the land. A skilled speaker, Mary McLeod Bethune was never content with words alone. She founded the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. and became one of the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to fight racism through mass action and the power of organization.
Bethune instilled a spirit of equality in the school she founded in 1904, Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. White visitors to Daytona Educational discovered—often to their chagrin—that democracy was built into the curriculum. Wilhelmina W. Johnson, one of Bethune’s former students, recalled that “in the afternoon services that we would have, Mrs. Bethune would say, ‘This is a democracy working in the South. White people, you sit where you can. If you don’t want to sit next to a black person, sorry. I’m sorry because we don’t discriminate here. Daytona Educational eventually merged with another institution and is now Bethune-Cookman University.
Bethune used his organizational influence to fight debt bondage, unequal schooling, “Jim Crow” transportation, and other ills of segregation. It is not uncommon for her activism to put her in danger; during his lifetime, Florida suffered the highest per capita lynching rate in the United States.
Long before the rise of the modern civil rights movement, Bethune urged African American women and men to regain the right to vote and use the ballot to save their country from the corruption of Jim Crow and one-party rule in South. On the eve of a national election, she told black community leaders in Florida, “Eat your bread without butter, but pay your poll tax!” Don’t be afraid of the Klan. Stop running. Look every man straight in the eye and don’t make excuses to anyone because of their race or color. When you see a burning cross, remember the Son of God who carried the heaviest.
Bethune played a leading role in promoting her country’s success in World War II by advocating for the inclusion of black women in the Women’s Army Corps so that it would become an integrated institution. Through her community organizing work with the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs of the Southeast — which she co-founded — Bethune helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support American troops in both World Wars through to Liberty Loan Drives and other initiatives.
By the end of World War II, Bethune’s international stature as a champion of human rights for all was such that President Harry Truman nominated her to attend the founding meeting of the United Nations in 1945. In her work on the historic Charter of the United Nations, she stressed the need to recognize the equality of all nations, especially those that were colonized by Europe and the United States. It was right and necessary, she argued, if the world was to avoid future conflagrations. In this, as in so many other cases, she proved to be prophetic.
Born near Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1875 and raised by enslaved parents, Bethune never forgot her roots and did not use her upbringing to place herself above others. Langston Hughes has previously traveled with Bethune from Florida to New York by car. The great poet remembers fondly, “The colored people along the east coast would throw a feast and open their houses wherever Mrs. Bethune passed in their path. The hens, sensing that she was coming, flew frantically in search of a hiding place. They knew that a large southern fried chicken platter would be prepared in his honor.
This amusing story points to a much deeper truth: Hughes understood that African Americans dipped deep into their pockets to feed and house Bethune to ensure that she would not be subjected to the insults and indignities of segregated establishments. . She was loved by all who knew of her work and her commitment to justice.
Bethune’s courage was bolstered by a strategic sense of humor. On the eve of an election, the Ku Klux Klan planned a march through the campus of Daytona Educational to terrorize female students and warn local African Americans to stay away from the ballot box. The Daytona Daily News said the KKK protest was held “to demonstrate the fact that the white race still maintains supremacy in this city and county, and in the South, and that the promotion of [N]The selfish element in political affairs will not be tolerated. Just as the Klansmen approached the school, a mysterious power outage hit Daytona. Danger was in the air.
Without warning, 150 African-American girls began to sing in unison a Christian hymn that they had rehearsed especially for the occasion. Alongside the dorm students, Principal Bethune joined her voice to serenade the white invaders with several verses of the old classic, “Be Not Dismayed Whate’er Betide, God Will Take Care of You.”
Humiliated, the Daytona KKK retreated to safer places.
Béthune still has a lot to teach us; we would do well today to draw our lessons from this outstanding educator and defender of human freedom.
Paul Ortiz is Professor of History and Director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.