Clyburn OP-ED: Bethune is Making History - Again

Mar 28, 2018 Issues: Congressional Issues

Columbia, South Carolina U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (SC) published today the following op-ed in the Sumter Item of Sumter, South Carolina:

More than six decades after her death, May 18, 1955, Sumter County native Mary Jane McLeod Bethune is making history, again.  The Florida legislature recently passed, and its Governor signed into law, legislation providing that a statue in the likeness of Ms. Bethune be placed in the United States Capitol building.  When that happens, she will become the first African American so honored by a state.

Currently, there are statues of Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks, and a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Capitol building.  But they were all put there by acts of the United States Congress. It is not generally known, but each state gets to place two statues of its choosing in the United States Capitol Building.  One of Florida’s statues is that of a Confederate General that will be relocated to Florida and replaced with a likeness of Ms. Bethune.

The Florida proponents of this history-making gesture were incented to do so by the tragic events at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.  In the nearly three years since, many jurisdictions have begun placing historic symbols and figures in their proper perspectives and more appropriate locations.

Born near Mayesville, SC, July 10, 1875, Mary Jane was the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves. She became a pioneering educator and fearless civil and human rights activist. An advisor to several United States presidents, she was a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s unofficial “black Cabinet.” Her relationships with President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor, placed her at the very highest levels of government. President Harry Truman appointed Ms. Bethune an Envoy to Liberia.

Mary Jane McLeod attended church-sponsored grade schools in Sumter County (SC) before graduating from Barber Scotia College in Kinston, North Carolina.  She returned to Sumter and taught at the grade schools she had attended. She later worked as a Social Worker in Savannah, Georgia, for a year before becoming a teacher at a school in Augusta, GA.  The Presbyterian Church transferred her back to Sumter to teach at Kendall Institute, which was located on Watkins Street near South Harvin Street. In 2006, the Sumter County Historical Commission placed a marker at the site.

Mary Jane McLeod married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune and they subsequently moved to Florida where she founded - what is now - Bethune Cookman College.  She was active with the National Council of Colored Women and Girls Clubs, but found them to be too docile. Her activism led her to the founding of the National Council of Negro Women which is still active today and headed by one of my favorite contemporaries, Ingrid Saunders-Jones.

My late mother was an especially enthusiastic fan of this trailblazing leader and insisted that I learn everything I could about Ms. Bethune, a picture of whom adorns a wall in my Congressional office in Washington.  It was partly as a tribute to my mother that I kinetically lobbied Governor John Carl West to support Senator Theo Mitchell’s legislation to place a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune in the South Carolina State House.  He did, the legislature responded positively, and Ms. Bethune became the first black person in South Carolina’s history to be so honored.  Her portrait was unveiled on July 10, 1976.

We cannot change history and we should not try.  Nor should we attempt to revise or distort events with misguided tributes to defenders of human bondage or protectors of the status quo. Although much work remains to be done, throughout her life Mary McLeod Bethune truly did her part to advance the cause of forming ‘a more perfect Union.’