Mary McLeod Bethune on Civil Rights
Elaine M. Smith
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) stands as an eminent American and one of the country's most distinguished women. Like about a half dozen other African Americans, she transcended a field to make “an essential contribution to the development of Black America.” Especially in relation to black women, her contributions to major historical developments warranted often-repeated encomiums as “First Lady of Race.” She achieved this status despite an unpromising beginning, including an extremely dark complexion. Her farming parents were slaves, as were most of her sixteen siblings. She attended two missionary-supported black schools: one five miles from her home outside rural Mayesville, South Carolina; the other, Barber Scotia, a residential girls' seminary, in Concord, North Carolina. Afterward, she spent a year at the integrated Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Returning to the South, she launched a teaching career. Inspired in part by educational role models Emma J. Wilson and Lucy Laney, this career choice blossomed into much more. Along the way, she experienced marriage and motherhood, but they proved minor hindrances to a public life, even though initially, the public frowned on black or white women in that arena. Bethune, however, would not be deterred because of her passionate belief in the leadership ability of black women and their need to fulfill their essential functions in advancing the race.
In the decades before the U.S. Supreme Court repudiated the “separate but equal” doctrine (1954) and virulent, legalized, and pervasive racial subordination sometimes made black militancy a matter of