Mary McLeod Bethune: How the “First Lady of the Struggle” Laid the Foundation for the Monumental Advances of the Civil Rights
History–Social Science for California Public Schools Content Standard (K-12):
- 11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights
Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6–12:
- Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
- Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas
- Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources
Students will take an in-depth look into the life of Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American humanitarian, educator, philanthropist, stateswoman, and civil rights activist. Students will accomplish this through engaging with a variety of primary and secondary sources, thus enabling them to gain a more holistic understanding of Bethune’s roots, achievements, relationships, and legacy. This detailed analysis into Bethune’s life, especially her childhood, and long-term impact will provide students with significant background information and new understanding into the realities for Black people living under Jim Crow Law in the South. By zeroing in on Bethune specifically, students will gain unique insight into the often invisibilized intersectional narrative of women with color, and reflect upon the larger question of who holds the pen and dictates American historical narratives.
Students will additionally learn about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, their approaches to race politics, and Bethune’s role in the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal. With the goal of evaluating the progressiveness of the Roosevelts, students will integrate information from diverse sources, developing a coherent understanding of the significance of the Roosevelt Era on the relationship between the federal government and Black Americans. Students will assess the long term influence of Mary Bethune in Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs and how it was foundational in future relationships between Presidents and leaders of the Black community, particularly President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their work to establish the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Students will gain understanding into the immeasurable accomplishments and legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune in the context of the foundations of Civil Rights ideologies and developments.
QUESTIONS: Who was Mary McLeod Bethune? To what extent did the contributions of Mary McLeod Bethune pave the way for the civil rights era and the respective changes to the American sociocultural landscape that were established during this radical time period?
- What was the Reconstruction? As a young African American girl growing up in South Carolina in late 1800s, what do you think Bethune’s day-to-day life was like?
- Who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Who is Eleanor Roosevelt? What was Mary Bethune’s relationship to the Roosevelt administration? What is the New Deal, and more specifically, what is the National Youth Administration (NYA)?
- What does it mean to have political power? How did Black Americans access and use political power even when they were denied civil and social rights and authority?
- Who Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who is Lyndon B. Johnson? What is the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964? How did Mary Bethune’s work with the NYA help lay the groundwork for future civil rights advancements?
Civil Rights/Civil Rights Movement: the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality; a struggle for justice and equality for African Americans that took place mainly in the 1950s and 1960s. It was led by people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Little Rock Nine and many others0
Sharecropping: a type of farming in which families rent small plots of land from a landowner in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year. In the rural South, it was typically practiced by former slaves due to the socioeconomic limbo caused by the abolition of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War. Consequently, many white landowners attempted to reestablish a labor force and freed blacks seeking economic independence and autonomy.1
Black Cabinet: (also known as the Federal Council of Negro Affairs or Black Brain Trust) the informal term for a group of African Americans who served as public policy advisors to President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during 1933-45.2
Negro: Negro means “black” in both Spanish and Portuguese languages, being derived from the Latin word niger of the same meaning. The term “negro”, literally the Spanish and Portuguese to refer to Black Africans and people with that heritage used “black.” From the 18th century to the mid-20th century, “negro” (later capitalized) was considered the correct and proper term for African Americans. It fell out of favor by the 1970s in the United States.3
Jim Crow law: a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after an insulting song lyric regarding African Americans, the laws—which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968—were meant to return Southern states to an antebellum class structure by marginalizing black Americans. Black communities and individuals that attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often met with violence and death.4
Intersectionality: a word that is used to refer to the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups.5
Mary McLeod Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875, the fifteenth of seventeen children6 born to parents who were slaves-turned-sharecroppers.1 Because Mary grew up predominantly with her mother, who continued to work for her former master, Mary developed an early understanding of racism and systematic oppression. Mary’s exposure to white privilege lead her to be very curious, successfully seeking out educational opportunities and sponsorship throughout her youth. Mary’s early ambitions led her to became the first person in her family to obtain an education. As a young woman, Mary Bethune derived immense fulfillment from being able to share what she learned with her family and community, which lead her to eventually teach at her former elementary school, and later, at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute run by Lucy Craft Laney, who was also a daughter of former slaves who dedicated her life to the education of black girls and children and instilled in Mary Bethune the goal of advancing the quality of life for Black Americans through education.7 Bethune’s time as an educator at the Hains Normal Industrial Institute under Laney gave her the foundation and inspiration to create her own institution of higher education for Black Americans; Mary Bethune founded the the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls3 in Daytona, Florida in 1904, which later developed into a full-fledged collegiate institution––the Bethune-Cookman University.6
Outside her accomplishments in changing the landscape for Black people in academia, Bethune is also known for her invaluable role in several early intersectional civil and human rights organizations and councils, including the National Association of Colored Women (which she was elected president of in 1924),6 and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which Bethune founded herself in 1935.7 The NCNW was created to organize groups dedicated to Black women across the country, encouraging the groups to gather and share information, and to develop black female leaders to work towards improved integration, enfranchisement, employment and educational opportunities for Black Americans.8 Bethune’s decades of impact led to the leadership position Bethune is probably best remembered for as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal program implemented in 1935. The NYA was the passion project of Eleanor Roosevelt, and its goal was to provide federal funds for job training and education to Americans aged 16-25. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt (whom Bethune had befriended through her work in higher education)10, Bethune lobbied President Roosevelt persistently and passionately for increased minority involvement in the NYA. President Roosevelt was convinced, and awarded Bethune a full-time staff position in 1936, ultimately naming her the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs.9 In this position Bethune was able to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for young Black Americans. Bethune’s close, personal friendship with the First Lady, who deemed Bethune the “First Lady of the struggle,”7 gave her the political access and leverage to create the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which Bethune informally coined as Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.”2 Towards the end of her political career, Bethune additionally co-founded the United Negro College Fund in 1944, which has raised over 50 million dollars to fund scholarships and programming for Black youth in higher education.7
Bethune is (somewhat ironically) known today as an individual whose imperative patch in the quilt of American History was tarnished, lost, and ultimately forgotten by many. Remembering and engaging with people and narratives that do not appear to get the same amount of time or space in American history books is hugely enriching for students not only because they gain more insight into the foundational efforts that created the necessary political and social climate for the Civil Rights era, but also so that they can take a step back and examine history itself through a wider lens, with the goal of considering how certain hierarchical systems and structures in the United States may have distorted or even invisibilized certain intersectional5 histories, like the story of Mary McLeod Bethune.
0Editors, History.com. “Civil Rights Movement.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Aug. 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement.
1Editors, History.com. “Sharecropping.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 June 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping.
2“Black Cabinet.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Cabinet.
3Editors, African American Registry. “Negro (the Word) a History.” African American Registry, aaregistry.org/story/negro-the-word-a-history/.
4Editors, History.com. “Jim Crow Laws.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Feb. 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws.
5“New Words: Intersectionality.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/intersectionality-meaning
6“Mary McLeod Bethune.” Edited by Debra Michals, National Women’s History Museum, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC Charitable Foundation Inc), 2015,www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.
7“Mary McLeod Bethune.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_McLeod_Bethune.
8“Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: National Council of Negro Women.” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, 2007, www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/national-council-negro-women.cfm#N_1.
9“Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: National Youth Administration.” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, 2007, www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/nya.cfm#N_1.
10Ayubu, Kani Saburi. “Mary McLeod Bethune: Her 1949 Historic Awards.” Black Art Depot Today, 15 July 2010, blackartblog.blackartdepot.com/african-american-leaders/mary-Mcleod-bethune-1949-historic-awards.html.
Scanned Documents PDF(includes South Carolina Negros 1877-1900 (pgs. 212-213; 216-218; 233-239), The Negro in South Carolina During the Reconstruction (pgs. 188-189; 198-199), Gender and Jim Crow (pgs. 31-32; 129-130), and Black Political Mobilization: Leadership, Power, and Mass Behavior (pgs.168-170)
- Assign students small excerpts for homework prior to class contextualizing the hostile environment of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era for Black Americans from Tindall’s South Carolina Negros 1877-1900 (pgs. 233-239) and Taylor’s The Negro in South Carolina During the Reconstruction (pgs. 188-189; 198-199).
- To start class, play Beyonce’s Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing (Homecoming Live). Professor/instructor will detail how “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” which is considered to be the “Negro national hymn,” is a song written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905 during the Reconstruction era.Explain to students that this contemporary cover by Beyonce was selected because it sends the message that 1) the struggle for Black americans still persists today and 2) celebrates the unwavering strength and resilience of black women in the face of ongoing discrimination.
- Separate the students into small discussion groups (4-5 people) to corroborate their understanding of the political and social realities for Black Americans during the Reconstruction period.
- Have small groups read another brief excerpt from Tindall’s South Carolina Negros 1877-1900 (pgs. 212-213; 216-218) about education and the Reconstruction and how education was identified among Black Americans as a means to improve quality of life for their people and communities at large.
- Using information from the excerpts students read for homework and in class, ask the students in their small groups to collaborate on a brief summary of the hardships unique to Black Americans during the Reconstruction (bullet points OK)
- After summarizing the sources in small groups, bring the class back together for a group discussion in which the class identifies some of the obstacles they believe Mary McLeod Bethune would have had to overcome to get to the equivalent level of school that the students are in currently.
- For homework, assign students a short passage from Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow (pgs. 31-32) and an excerpt from David William’s draft of the unpublished Mary Bethune Biography. Have students write and print out a response (~450-500words) integrating information from the biography (primary source) as well as the secondary sources into a coherent understanding of what the Reconstruction period was really like for a young black girl living in South Carolina, noting discrepancies among sources.
- Students will exchange hard copies of their homework and discuss their responses with a partner, offering a piece of constructive feedback (i.e. have students identify one edit to make for their partner) and a piece of encouragement (i.e. have students identify one component their partners work that they appreciated) before handing the assignment in.
- After providing partner feedback, have students individually read a two very brief passages, one from Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow (pgs.129-130) and the other from Morrison’s Black Political Mobilization: Leadership, Power, and Mass Behavior (pgs.168-170), along with a slightly longer excerpt from Sitkoff’s “The New Deal and Race Relations” (pgs. 27-40) detailing Roosevelt’s approach to addressing race during his Presidential campaign/early years in office.
- Ask students to separate into small groups (4-5 people) to create a poster advertising President Roosevelt’s New Deal, its respective programs, and its overall impact on American culture and way of life. Ask students to highlight at least 3 programs, one of which must be the National Youth Administration (NYA), and their specific accomplishments
- Have groups present their posters to the class, encouraging students to explain the New Deal program they find the most effective and why. Save 5-10 minutes after presentations for students to pose clarifying questions/make any additional comments about what they saw (and what they did not see) addressed in New Deal programs
- Using information from the excerpts students read for homework and in class, ask the students in their small groups to collaborate on a brief summary of the hardships unique to Black Americans during the Reconstruction (bullet points OK).
- For homework, have students read pages 569-573 of Abramowitz’s “Eleanor Roosevelt and the National Youth Administration 1935-1945–An Extension of the Presidency.”
- After the Abramowitz reading, students will write and turn in an accurate summary (no more than 350 words) that clarifies the relationships among the key details from the assigned sources (i.e. explain who President Roosevelt was, his position on race, the development of the New Deal, who Eleanor Roosevelt was, and the extent to which she was involved in catalyzing the creation and development of the NYA).
- After turning in their brief summaries at the start of class, students will individually read a part of Ross’s “Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration: A Case Study of Power Relationships in the Black Cabinet of Franklin D. Roosevelt” (pgs. 1-7) Following the reading, students will come together in pairs in an activity designed to explore power dynamics and political structures more broadly.
- Students will create a venn diagram with their partner analyzing the similar and different ways Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune engaged their social positionality/relationships to manifest political change/alliances during the Roosevelt administration.
- Have each pair develop a question pertaining to a discrepancy between Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Bethune as well as a similarity between the two women. Have students consider how each of these women used their positions as “first ladies” to affect change.
- After question development, each team will engage in a short, two-part Socratic seminar. One student will be Student A and the other Student B; Student A will commence in a Socratic discussion with fellow Student As (equipped with their questions and venn diagrams) while Student Bs scribe, noting their partners most poignant contributions as well as constructive feedback (e.g. Incorporate more text from the readings to support your claims during discussion). After 15 minutes, Students A and B switch.Pairs will get back together for the remaining class time to deliver constructive feedback and also reiterate the major takeaways from their respective discussions.
- For Homework, assign a passage of Stern’s “Lyndon Johnson and Democrats’ Civil Rights Strategy” (pgs. 1-20) to allow students to contextualize the presidential gap between FDR and future Democratic Presidents involved in Civil Rights legislation, particularly President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ).
- During their assigned reading, ask students to consider and come to class ready to discuss the ways this piece demonstrates how people with insider political power during the Civil Rights era (e.g. President LBJ) built upon the work of their predecessors from the 1930-40s with explicit political power (e.g. FDR) and without (e.g. Mary Bethune), and how this ultimately manifested into meaningful Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.
- Additionally, ask the students to write down three ways in which they think Mary McLeod Bethune was able to gain meaningful political influence even though she came from one of the least powerful, most discriminated against groups in the country (i.e. black women) and never held a formal, elected political office.
- Hand out the copies of The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper article, “Negro Women Have Capacity For Leadership Mary Bethune Reminds President Roosevelt,” emphasizing that this is a primary source.
- Referencing their homework, have students come together briefly in small groups (4-5 people) to discuss and further their understanding about how Mary Bethune utilized her relationship with the Roosevelts to accomplish her political agenda.
- Afterward, expand the small group dialogues to the entire class, engaging students in a popcorn-style conversation analyzing the degree to which Bethune was able to influence the policies of her respective agency toward Black Americans within organizations like the NYA and the “Black Cabinet.” The professor/instructor will eventually ask students to assess how Bethune’s upbringing may have informed her approach to/relationship with political power. Refresh students memories on the Taylor and Tindall Reconstruction Era pieces to bring them back to the realities of Reconstruction and how they may have shaped Bethune’s perspective.
- For homework, assign the Introduction, and pgs. 17-25 of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America.
- Introduce the prompt for the (approximately 750-word) paper students will be required to draft and eventually turn in. Students will write a “change over time” paper analyzing a series of related events described across texts; they will determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
- Specifically, students will consider how, for example, the work of Mary Bethune imploring FDR to consider incorporating black women into WWII defense jobs, opened critical doors necessary to catalyze the Civil Rights movement, encouraging future Presidents to work directly with leaders from the black community (such as President Johnson’s relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.,) and ultimately, culminating in the passage of sweeping Civil Rights legislation in 1964. Students must incorporate at least three different resources assigned in class.
- Have students draft a thesis statement to bring into class for constructive peer and teacher feedback
- Place students into groups of three when they arrive in class.
- Have students exchange their thesis with two of their peers, offering one another 2-3 pieces of constructive feedback (i.e. have students identify edits/suggestions to make for their partner) along with a compliment (i.e. have students identify one component their partners thesis that they felt was particularly compelling).
- After providing small group feedback, students may use the remainder of class time to draft their papers; students are encouraged to ask the Professor/Instructor for support/to clarify questions during this time.
- For Homework, have students complete and turn in essay before the start of class the following week.
Abramowitz, Mildred W. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the National Youth Administration 1935-1943: An Extension of the Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 4, 1984, pp. 569–580. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27550133.
Bethune, Mary McLeod. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building A Better World, Essays and Selected Documents. Edited by Audrey Thomas. McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, Indiana University Press, 2001.
Bethune, Mary McLeod. “Negro Women Have Capacity For Leadership Mary Bethune Reminds President Roosevelt .” The Pittsburgh Courier, 15 June 1940, p. 8.
“Black Cabinet.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Cabinet.
Beyoncé. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Homecoming: The Live Album , Derek Dixie, Empire Polo Club, Indio, California, Apr. 2019.
Editors, African American Registry. “Negro (the Word) a History.” African American Registry, aaregistry.org/story/negro-the-word-a-history/.
Editors, History.com. “Jim Crow Laws.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Feb. 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws.
Editors, History.com. “Sharecropping.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 June 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping.
Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
Kotz, Nick. Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
“Mary McLeod Bethune.” Edited by Debra Michals, National Women’s History Museum, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC Charitable Foundation Inc), 2015, http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.
“Mary McLeod Bethune.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 18 Aug. 2018, http://www.nps.gov/mamc/learn/historyculture/mary-mcleod-bethune.htm.
“Mary McLeod Bethune.” Women of the Hall, National Women’s Hall of Fame, http://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/mary-mcleod-bethune/.
Morrison, Minion K. C. Black Political Mobilization Leadership, Power and Mass Behavior. State University of New York Press, 1987.
“New Words: Intersectionality.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/intersectionality-meaning.
Ross, B. Joyce. “Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration: A Case Study of Power Relationships in the Black Cabinet of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 60, no. 1, 1975, pp. 1–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2716791.
Sitkoff, Harvard. “The New Deal and Race Relations.” Toward Freedom Land, 2010, pp. 27–40., doi:10.5810/kentucky/9780813125831.003.0003.
Stern, Mark. “Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats’ Civil Rights Stategy.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 16, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24003020.
Taylor, Alrutheus Ambush. The Negro in South Carolina during the Reconstruction. Russell & Russell, 1969.
“Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: National Council of Negro Women.” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, 2007, www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/national-council-negro-women.cfm#N_1.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes 1877-1900. The University of South Carolina Press, 1952.
Williams, David. Excerpt from Draft of Unpublished Mary Bethune Biography. Florida Memory, State Library & Archives of Florida.