She was born in rural South Carolina, just a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, to parents who had been enslaved.
She was the fifteenth of seventeen children. None of her siblings could read or write — they all worked in the cotton fields.
Her childhood coincided with the end of Reconstruction, when newly-freed black people faced extraordinary hurdles. Most black women worked as domestics or picked cotton. But Mary McLeod Bethune wanted more for herself.
Against all odds, she got it — becoming a respected, even revered, leader. In a long life devoted to education and public service, she worked nationally and internationally at the height of power and influence in America.
As well as anyone, she understood the challenges of being a black woman in America.
Known today as an educator, an organizer, a civil rights leader and a humanitarian, Bethune is not often associated with one of her most powerful and crucial skills: public speaking.
On this day in 1933, she stepped up to the podium at the Chicago Women’s Federation, part of the “Century of Progress World’s Fair” in honor of the centenary of Chicago’s incorporation as a city. It was an opportunity for the city to strut its stuff and show the world how far it had come.
Bethune used the opportunity to show the world how far black women had come. She called her speech “A Century of Progress of Negro Women.”
It was an homage to the many black women who’d overcome adversity to be artists, poets, novelists, musicians, businesswomen, organizers, religious and political leaders — women like Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Marian Anderson, Maggie L. Walker, Madam C.J. Walker, Annie M. Malone, Addie Waites Hunton, Kathryn M. Johnson, Jane E. Hunter, and more.
“As the years have gone on the Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization,” Bethune said. “She has made and is making history.”
The scholar Rondee Gaines notes that in the speech, Bethune “does not construct a female desiring or living as a passive, pious, docile, quiet, and inactive domestic. On the contrary, woman, etched on the rhetorical canvas in her speech, takes center stage in the world.”
“The Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization. She has made and is making history.”
Everything Bethune did in her half century of work in public service, whether educating, organizing, fundraising, mediating, or advising, was furthered by her skills as an orator.
As president of the institution she founded, originally the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, she spoke on educational issues.
In a 1920 speech, “A Philosophy of Education for Negro Girls,” she explained what drew her into education: “Very early in my life, I saw the vision of what our women might contribute to the growth and development of the race, — if they were given a certain type of intellectual training. I longed to see women, — Negro women, hold in their hands, diplomas which bespoke achievement. . .”
As president and spokeswoman for the National Association of Colored Women, and later as founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, she spoke at conferences and meetings, on panels, and at other events, using her authority to improve the economic and social status of black women, and to argue for racial opportunity and equality.
During WWII she used her voice to help build support for the war effort among African Americans and recruit black women for Army officer training.
In 1945, three months after the war ended, she testified before a US Senate sub-committee in support of legislation for urban redevelopment and public housing to alleviate the slums that had become “the most cancerous sore in the American life.”
She used her voice to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan and to protect the voting rights of black women.
As the world adjusted to post-war realities, Bethune’s oratory encompassed the new order. On July 27, 1954 she spoke in Caux, Switzerland to a World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament: “When you see me, you see a representative of 16 million black people in America, and I think of the darker peoples of the world who have been hungering, thirsting, to join hands with mankind everywhere. To join hands with mankind everywhere to bring about a world of peace and brotherhood and understanding.”
Bethune gave hundreds of speeches over the course of her life.
She attended protests and rallies. She spoke on behalf of the Red Cross, the Methodist Church, and the NAACP. She advocated for federal anti-lynching law, against the poll tax, to extend Social Security to agricultural and domestic workers, in support of fair employment practices, against a segregated military.
Wherever she spoke, she projected dignity, authority and gravity.
While she fully understood the racial caste system that valued fairer skin, Bethune talked about her own dark skin as a source of strength and pride. Often at high-level policy meetings, she would find herself the only black person in the room. “When they see me,” she would say, “they know that the Negro is present.”
She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.
At a brotherhood luncheon at Council House in Washington DC in late February 1955, Bethune spoke of herself as “a simple and ordinary human being who came from the depth of ignorance and poverty to a platform of service to mankind.”
It was a rare moment of reflection and hard-earned optimism. Less than a year earlier, the US Supreme Court had desegregated public education in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.
Bethune called upon her audience “to take the torch . . . to drive away war. To drive away the things that have tended to keep us apart, and building more solidly the bridge that we can walk over all types of difficulties and bring into action that brotherhood, that fellowship that the world needs today.”
Everything Bethune did in her half century of work in public service was furthered by her skills as an orator.
Weeks later, on May 18, 1955, Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack at her home in Florida.
As the journalist Louis E. Martin wrote in a tribute:
“It is difficult to understand how much Negroes needed inspiration in the early years of this century, and how much of a contribution a person who knew how to inspire others like Mrs. Bethune really made to the general welfare. She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.”
Although the term wasn’t commonly used in her day, Mary McLeod Bethune was a voice of black pride.
For her faith in American ideals, for her determination to spread the promise and bounty of this country to all its people, her voice is needed now.
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