The Ambiguities of Honoring Mary McLeod Bethune

Honored yesterday with a statue in the U.S. Capitol, Mary McLeod Bethune was a dynamo of black women’s civic entrepreneurship, activism, and accomplishment during the first half of the 20th century. Born in rural South Carolina, Bethune was educated at a local school house and Scotia Seminary before embarking on a career of teaching, founding a black girls school that became Bethune-Cookman University, and activism in black voting rights, the Colored Women’s Club movement, National Council of Negro Women, and the United Negro College Fund. Having become acquainted with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Bethune served in the National Youth Administration, the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, and as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the Roosevelt Administration. According to Wikipedia, Eleanor Roosevelt frequently referred to Mary McLeod Bethune as “her closest friend in her age group,” but the most apt tribute might have come from columnist Louis E. Martin who said on Mary McLeod Bethune’s death that “She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.”

As noted above by the New York Times, Mary McLeod Bethune is the first black American memorialized with a state statue in National Statuary Hall in the Capitol. As the U.S. evolves into a multicultural and socially liberal nation, “Black Firsts” have become a prominent part of mainstream culture. Barack Obama as the first Black president, Michelle Obama as the first Black First Lady, Kamala Harris as the first Black Vice-President, Jackie Robinson as the first Black player in Major League Baseball, Toni Morrison as the first Black Nobel laureate in Literature, and Gabby Douglas as the first black woman to win all round gold in Olympic gymnastics came to mind among many others.

But the idea of “black firsts” contains uncomfortable ambiguities. During her life, Mary McLeod Bethune was known mostly as an exemplary “colored woman” but her statue memorializes her as an exemplary “American.” That’s where the ambiguity lies. To be an exemplary “colored woman” meant standing apart and making progress for Black education, Black health, Black voting rights, and Black Civil Rights in opposition to America’s dominant social and political forces. Much like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and voting rights for white women, it meant dying before Black civil rights and voting rights became law. On Bethune’s death, The Oklahoma City Black Dispatch stated she was “Exhibit No. 1 for all who have faith in America and the democratic process.” (quoted from Wikipedia). In other words, Bethune died while black civil rights was a matter of faith but not reality, the “dream” of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” instead of a standard and expectation.

As an “exemplary American” honored almost 70 years after her death,” Mary McLeod Bethune’s monument stands not only for her life and accomplishments. Her monument also stands as a testament to the multicultural, socially liberal America that’s been taking shape but also as an accusatory finger pointed at the white supremacist past that required necessitated such monumental efforts for black people to make progress slow as it was.

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