Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune: Representing the Best of Who We Are

Dr. Bethune saying goodbye to a group of students in front of White Hall after resigning as president of the college

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s journey to the National Statuary Hall began in Mayesville, South Carolina, where she was born, and runs through Daytona Beach, home of the university she founded. But her life’s influence spans the country, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to the urban streets of Watts, Detroit and from Harlem to small towns in the South where Jim Crow laws institutionalized the racism she battled all her life.

At the time of her death in 1955, a year after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling was handed down by the Supreme Court, Bethune was seen largely as an educator.

In an article in The Journal of Negro History, Elaine M. Smith succinctly captured that perception.

“More than anything else, in the public imagination Mary Bethune was most closely identified with education,” Smith wrote.

But Mary McLeod Bethune did more than create an institution of higher learning. And her journey to the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol was a long, determined march toward building a better world.

Historian Len Lempel, professor emeritus at Daytona State College, said Bethune doesn’t get the credit she deserves because many of the watershed events in the history of the civil rights movement – the Montgomery bus boycott, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act – occurred after her death.

“In spite of all her influence, in spite of her successes, she could never break through in the sense the country remained segregated while she lived, except at the end of her life,” Lempel said. “Unfortunately the great successes of the late 50s and early 60s are seen as the heart of the movement. Everything changes, but what is ignored is the foundation that is laid by people like Mary McLeod Bethune and many others.”

While the great victories of the civil rights movement occurred after Bethune’s active career, Lempel said her long list of accomplishments are a testament to why she is the right choice to represent Florida in the statuary hall.

“She became the highest ranking African-American, male or female, during the New Deal and no other African-American had the kind of access to the President of the United States that she did,” he said. “If you look at [the time] before the Roosevelt Administration, Blacks did not have direct access to the President.”

Calling her “the most influential African-American of her day,” Lempel said Bethune was tremendously important to what was the beginning of the civil rights movement.

“Given her place of honor as one of the leading civil rights activists of her day, if not the leading activist of her day in terms of influence, what better person to represent Florida in the statuary hall,” he said.

Lempel said he is not surprised that Bethune received overwhelming support from the public to represent the Sunshine State in the U.S. Capitol.

“She has tremendous public popularity, and if you think of it, who else should go into the National Statuary Hall, which is sort of the People’s Gallery,” he said.

Lempel said those chosen to represent their states in the National Statuary Hall should be popular in their home states.

“I think that in itself is a good reason for Mary McLeod Bethune to be there, but not the only reason,” he said.

Lempel said in replacing Confederate States Army Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the statuary hall, she is taking the place of someone who spent very little time in the state “and really has no claim to any kind of fame” in Florida.

“But if you look at Mary McLeod Bethune, she spent almost her entire adult career in Daytona and she rose to local, state and national prominence, while maintaining a foothold in the state through her school,” he said.

State Representative Paul Renner, whose district includes Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties as well as northern Volusia County, said Bethune was the right choice for several reasons.

Dr. Bethune leading a graduation procession at Bethune-Cookman College.

“I think that to me she represents what our country is about, which is opportunity,” he said. “She started with a very small amount of money and a mission to educate and provide a greater opportunity to African-American students in her area here in Florida and as a result that determined act led to the improvement of thousands of lives.”

Renner said the fact that the legislation to select Mary McLeod Bethune as one of Florida’s two representatives in the National Statuary Hall occurred over the course of several legislative sessions is not a reflection of any hesitancy on the part of legislators.

“Even on bills that ultimately pass unanimously, sometimes there is something new and sometimes it takes a couple of sessions,” he said. “That’s by design. Our system is set up for that so once we get it done, we get it done right.”

And in the case of Mary McLeod Bethune that is exactly what happened.

“I think it’s really exciting,” Renner said. “She stands for a lot of what’s great about our country.”

The broad appeal of Bethune’s selection to represent Florida in the statuary hall is evident in the official announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis, issued on her July 10 birthday, requesting her statue replace Smith’s.

“Florida is proud to commemorate the 144th anniversary of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s birthday by sending our state’s formal request to place her statue in National Statuary Hall, making her the first African-American to have a state-commissioned statue,” DeSantis said in the release. “Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was an influential educator, leader and civil rights activist who became one of Florida’s and our nation’s most influential leaders. Dr. Bethune’s statue will represent the best of who we are as Floridians to visitors from around the world to our nation’s capitol. Her legacy endures and will continue to inspire future generations.”

The fact that Mary McLeod Bethune will be the first African American woman to represent a state in Statuary Hall is emblematic of her remarkable life, according to Dr. Michelle Carter, Executive Director of Vince Carter’s Embassy of Hope Foundation and Chief Executive Officer of Visions in Flight, Inc., and a member of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund board.

“Dr. Bethune was an innovator,” Carter said. “She thought outside of the box and did not accept the status quo.  She was a woman of great insight and seemed to ask why not instead of why.”

Dr. Bethune meeting Harry S. Truman

Carter said Bethune’s extraordinary life extended beyond Daytona Beach and Florida and her national prominence deserves to be recognized.

“Who could have fathomed that such a woman could be an advisor to a sitting President of the United States, be the co-founder of the United Negro College Fund, or fight for women to be given opportunities to join the military,” Carter said. “Dr. Bethune had the audacity to believe that African American boys and girls should have the opportunity to be educated, just like other children that didn’t look like them, because she knew education developed the head, the heart, and the hand.”

Carter said she is looking forward to seeing the statue and for others to have the opportunity before it is installed in the U.S. Capitol.

“The unveiling of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune statues, both in Daytona Beach and in National Statuary Hall will be dynamic, unifying, and historic, not only for the greater Daytona Beach community, but for Florida and the United States,” she said.

When Bethune died, newspapers around the country memorialized her and recognized her contributions to American society.

“So great was her dynamism and force that it was impossible to resist her … Not only her own people but all of America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit,” wrote The Washington Post.

The Daytona Beach Evening News, forerunner of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, remembered Bethune in 1955 thusly: “To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be… What right had she to greatness? The lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers.”

Her influence even echoed in the halls of Congress, where Rep. Adam Clayton Powell rose to speak about her the day after she died.

“We have truly lost one whose great and gentle influence has shaped our lives over many years,” he said. “The people of America have lost the keen mind, the rich wisdom and the infinite courage of a woman who has contributed so much to her country. The life of Mary McLeod Bethune will forever serve the people of the United States as a profound source of inspiration.”

Perhaps Bethune’s most poignant legacy is to be found in her own words, delivered at a Women’s Leadership Conference in 1952:

“Let us build the world of our dreams. A world with freedom blessed. The world with justice at its heart. To hope and love addressed. A world that cares.”

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