Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Representing the Race: Mary McLeod Bethune and the Press in the Jim Crow Era

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Representing the Race: Mary McLeod Bethune and the Press in the Jim Crow Era

Article excerpt

Introduction

As one of the most influential women of the twentieth century(1), Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) occupies a unique place in American history. Her stature results from her multiple roles as the founder in 1904 and president of the institution that became Bethune-Cookman College; a two-term president (1924-28) of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW); founder in 1935 of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW); and director of the federal National Youth Administration (NYA) and convener of the "Black Cabinet," who acted as unofficial advisors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt between 1936-42. She also held many ceremonial offices in black and interracial organizations and became the first black American to have a memorial statue on federal park land in the nation's capital, and in 1982 became the eighth member of her race to have a commemorative postage stamp issued in her honor. Across black America scores of schools, streets, and campus buildings bear her name. She is consistently listed among the most important black leaders in American history, along with Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. During her lifetime she was called the female Booker T. Washington, and enjoyed widespread popular support among the black masses, many of whom dubbed her "Mother Bethune." Like Washington, Bethune's views on education reflected her agrarian upbringing emphasizing self-help and practicality. Also like Washington, she reaped the affection and support of the black masses and much of the white establishment. Unlike Washington, whom she admired, Bethune did not invoke hostility among the black elite. Yet neither the substance nor style of her leadership has attracted the level of scholarly attention reaped by her male peers.

Bethune's achievement occurred during the Jim Crow era of strict racial segregation in which newspapers were a principal forum for public discourse. Black owned newspapers, in particular, assumed the full weight of the race uplift ideology. Bethune seized that forum in an effort to present herself as the emblematic leader of black hope; to champion black progress, and to dislodge rampantly negative perceptions of black women and men in the American mind. Emblematic leaders such as Washington and Bethune, who are dependent upon popular acclaim rather than elective office, seek to dislodge negative views of the group by presenting themselves as exemplars whose positive personal traits--integrity, hard work, etc. represent the group's possibilities and potential.(2)

Bethune's personal traits included charisma and a sense of self and mission that while admired in men, is often feared in women. She eased those fears of overstepping invisible gender boundaries by appearing to stay within them. This was achieved with a melodious and cultivated speaking voice, an imposing physical appearance--short, stout, dark-skinned, affecting smile, and piercing but friendly eyes--and a personality that courted conciliation rather than conflict.(3) She provided a non-confrontational image to many whites and earned mostly favorable coverage in the white press. To her own race, she was a fount of black pride--a caring mother-figure who dispensed inspirational leadership that attracted wide coverage in a black press committed to ending racial segregation.(4) These combined attributes incited recognition and acceptance on both sides of the color line and legitimized her role as race representative.

In her advocacy role, Bethune navigated the boundaries of race and gender by using direct but carefully chosen words to exemplify traditional values of God and country. She spoke of family mostly in the broad sense of race and humanity, in part because her own family life was complicated by a failed marriage and an under achieving son who felt neglected. Yet she occupied a perch of moral authority and from this position, attempted to revise existing scripts that read blacks as morally and intellectually inferior and confined them to a narrow range of their human potential. …

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