Fearless educator takes her place as a role model for all

A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, which is the first state statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall, is seen in the Capitol.
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, which is the first state statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall, is seen in the Capitol.

With a marble likeness of Mary McCleod Bethune newly installed in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building, all supporters of democracy have new reason to celebrate.

Bethune is the first African American to be selected by a state for representation in the hall, and her statue joins one of John Gorrie, inventor of an air-cooling machine, in representing the state of Florida. Bethune’s statue replaces that of a Confederate general.

Bethune is one of the most extraordinary individuals in American history. She possessed a remarkable intellect, impeccable ethics and was so widely respected nationally that she became a trusted adviser to several presidents.

Bethune’s role as a leader of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” during the Great Depression allowed her to play an essential part in crafting the “New Deal” that made government more responsive to ordinary Americans.

Bethune was a believer and practitioner of the equality of women at a time when women’s “natural inferiority” to men was assumed at the highest levels of society. Bethune was a fierce advocate of 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 orator, Mary McLeod Bethune was never satisfied with words alone. She founded the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. and became a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons to combat racism with mass action and the power of organization.

Bethune instilled a spirit of equality at 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 an integral part of 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 beside a Black person, sorry. I am sorry because we do not discriminate here.’” Daytona Educational eventually merged with another institution and is now Bethune-Cookman University.

Bethune used her organizational clout to fight debt peonage, unequal schooling, “Jim Crow” transportation and other evils of segregation. Not infrequently, her activism put her in harm’s way; during her lifetime, Florida suffered the highest per capita rate of lynching 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 rescue their country from the corruption of Jim Crow and one-party rule in the South. On the eve of one national election, she told Black community leaders in Florida, “Eat your bread without butter, but pay your poll tax! Do not be afraid of the Klan. Quit running. Look every man straight in the eye and make no apology to anyone because of race or color. When you see a burning cross, remember the Son of God who bore the heaviest.” 

Bethune figured prominently in furthering her country’s success in World War II by advocating for inclusion of Black women in the Women’s Army Corps so it became an integrated institution. Through her community organizing work with the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs — which she co-founded — Bethune helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support U.S. troops in both world wars through Liberty Loan Drives and other initiatives. 

By the end of WWII, Bethune’s international stature as a champion of human rights for all was such that President Harry Truman appointed her to attend the founding meeting of the United Nations in 1945. In her work on the historic United Nations Charter, she emphasized the need to recognize the equality of all nations, especially those that had been colonized by Europe and the United States. This was just and necessary, she argued, if the world was to avoid future conflagrations. In this, as in so many other instances, she proved prophetic. 

Born near Mayesville, S.C., in 1875 and reared by parents who had been enslaved, Bethune never forgot her roots, and she did not use her education to place herself above others. Langston Hughes once traveled with Bethune from Florida to New York in a car. The great poet fondly recalled, “Colored people along the eastern seaboard spread a feast and opened their homes wherever Mrs. Bethune passed their way. Chickens, sensing that she was coming, went flying off frantically seeking a hiding place. They knew a heaping platter of southern fried chicken would be made in her honor.” 

This amusing story points to a much deeper truth: Hughes understood that African Americans dug deep into their pockets to feed and to lodge Bethune to ensure that she would not be subjected to the insults and indignities of segregated establishments. She was beloved by all who knew of her work and her commitment to justice. 

Bethune’s courage was buttressed by a strategic sense of humor. On the eve of one election, the Ku Klux Klan planned a march through the campus of Daytona Educational to terrorize the female students and to warn local African Americans to stay away from the polls. The Daytona Daily News stated that the KKK’s demonstration was held “to demonstrate the fact that the white race still maintains supremacy in this city and county, as well as in the South, and that fostering of the [N]egro element in matters political will not be tolerated.” Just as the Klansmen approached the school, a mysterious power outage blanketed Daytona. Danger was in the air.

Without warning, 150 African American girls broke out singing in unison a Christian hymn they had specially rehearsed for the occasion. Along with the students in the dormitory, Headmistress 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 haunts.

Bethune still has much to teach us; we would do well to take our lessons today from this peerless educator and crusader for human liberty.

Paul Ortiz is a professor of history and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Tags Black Cabinet Civil rights in the United States Courage Education in the United States Historically black colleges and universities integration Jim Crow laws Mary McCleod Bethune National Statuary Hall Racial segregation women's equality women's suffrage

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