Justice  /  Biography

Mary McLeod Bethune Was at the Vanguard of More Than 50 Years of Black Progress

Winning the vote for women was a mighty struggle. Securing full liberation for women of color was no less daunting

By the 1920s, Bethune had discovered the limits of local politics and began to seek a national platform. In 1924 she assumed the presidency of the largest black women’s political organization in the country, the National Association of Colored Women. By 1935, she was working in Washington, D.C., and the following year played a major role in organizing President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Council on Negro Affairs, unofficially known as the “Black Cabinet.”

Bethune, seeing how desperately black Americans needed their share of the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal, solidified her influence as a counselor to the president and the only black woman in his inner circle. In 1936, FDR named her head of the new Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration, making Bethune the most highly placed black woman in the administration. Black Americans had been largely excluded from political appointments since the end of Reconstruction; Bethune resurrected this chance for black Americans to hold sway at the national level and ushered a generation of black policymakers into federal service, including Crystal Bird Fauset, who would become the first black woman in the country to be elected to a state legislature when she joined the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1938. Bethune was aided by the close friendship she’d forged with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw eye to eye with Bethune on civil rights and women’s issues. The two went out of their way to appear together in public, in a conspicuous rejoinder to Jim Crow.

During World War II, Bethune thought that the struggles of black women in the United States mirrored fights against colonialism being waged elsewhere in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Leading the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which she’d founded in 1935, Bethune worked to ensure that the Women’s Army Corps included black women. In 1945, delegates from 50 Allied nations met to draft the United Nations Charter at a conference in San Francisco; Bethune lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt for a seat at the table—and got one. Working with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India and Eslanda Robeson, an unofficial observer for the Council on African Affairs, Bethune helped solidify the U.N. Charter’s commitment to human rights without regard to race, sex or religion. As she wrote in an open letter, “Through this Conference the Negro becomes closely allied with the darker races of the world, but more importantly he becomes integrated into the structure of the peace and freedom of all people everywhere.”