Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Mary McLeod Bethune's "Last Will and Testament": A Legacy for Race Vindication

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Mary McLeod Bethune's "Last Will and Testament": A Legacy for Race Vindication

Article excerpt

After the impressive 1926 Convention of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in Oakland, California, an enthusiast referring to the delegates wrote, "Their luggage, consisting of expensive and durable suitcases, bags, overnight bags of all forms and sizes, did credit to good taste and common sense."(1) While non-contemporaries may think such a baggage observation irrelevant, it was tied into NACW members' desire "to furnish evidence of the moral, mental, and material progress made by people of color..." In fact, they enshrined this purpose into the preamble to their 1897 constitution and reaffirmed it almost thirty years later.(2) In other words, black women's most notable secular organization of that period had taken on the task of vindicating the race. Such an objective was virtually a reflex response, not only for its members, but especially among educated blacks throughout the country. It sprang from white America cursing people of African descent with assumed inferiority and using its crushing power to enforce economic, political, social, and educational discrimination and segregation.

Long before affiliating with the NACW, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) fully imbibed the imperative to justify the values and accomplishments of African-Americans. She became a national heroine in part because she did this well. So well in fact, that she is considered by many the most influential black woman in American history whose impact was comparable to that of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr.(3) Her odyssey from the obscurity of the South Carolina cotton fields to celebrated achievements in education, government, and women's organizations is the stuff of legend. Essentially an activist, rather than an intellectual or probing social commentator, Bethune's life presented her primary proof of the worthiness of the race. Before death at age 79, she scrutinized her life to distill the principles and policies which had led to her personal success. The result was "My Last Will and Testament," her most thoughtful and popular written work.(4) From a career of mentoring and moving ahead in a racist society, Bethune identifies in this literary document nine maxims which undergirded her quest for freedom. Introducing each with "I leave you," they are love, hope, developing confidence in one another, education, using power, faith, racial dignity, living harmoniously, and a responsibility to young people.

A true reflection of Bethune, "My Last Will" attests in particular to the author's remarkable balance.(5) It blends "faith and works" or the spiritual and pragmatic. It expresses surging optimism and hard-nosed reality; concern for leaders and the masses. But the incorporation of both ends of the ideological spectrum is especially evident in the conviction that black empowerment derives dialectically from enhancement within and without the race. For Bethune, both integrationist and nationalist (or self-determinist) approaches were imperative for equality. All nine principles carry an intra-group thrust, as was to be expected. But within them, four carry an interracial mandate as well. These are love, developing confidence in one another, racial dignity, and living harmoniously.

The Testament's postulates imply that Bethune vindicated the race on the basis of three ideological positions. African-Americans possess the spiritual attributes of character at the core of society's spiritual ideals, especially the attributes of hope, faith, and love. African-Americans subscribe to society's essential cultural emphases, namely education, a responsibility to young people, and respect for the uses of power. And as America's most challenged ethnic minority, African-Americans understand the elements needed for an abundant life, including living harmoniously with others, developing confidence in each other, and maintaining racial dignity. These views vindicated the race by placing it in the ideological mainstream despite the unique difficulties and frustrations Africans Americans faced in realizing the American Dream. …

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