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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: "Stepping Aside. . . at Seventy-four"

Mary McLeod Bethune wrote the following article for the October 1949 issue of Women United, a periodical of the National Council of Negro Women.

Women United goes to press as I make ready to turn over the president's desk at our national headquarters in Washington, to younger, stronger, surer hands, and I find, constantly through my mind, the faces of the women who have helped to make the foundation-laying of the National Council of Negro Women, during the past fifteen years, a work of joy.

I want to pay tribute to them! There are so many of these women, old and young. Fine, strong, alert women, clear-headed, far-seeing leaders in many fields. How much they have meant to me! There was no idea so big they could not grasp and develop it. No task so humble that they scorned it.

How they came around me and worked early and late, on problems which affected their individual lives [and] the lives of all women. They sought and found ways to integrate women into jobs; they joined forces to help push through legislation designed to lighten the burden of women and children; and in the far-flung areas trained and encouraged women to use the franchise to their advantage. These women worked at makeshift desks in the living room of my little apartment on Ninth Street, where my tired secretary would fall asleep, after the last volunteer had left with the dawn. And all this at the end of a hard day's work on important full-time jobs!...

Yes, this has been a work of joy—joy in the struggle and responsibilities which we sought and accepted. A means to the realization of a dream for the Negro women of America, united with their sisters of all races, throughout the world.

It was a dream of being able to say, "We will be heard!" It was a dream of hearing the voices of women united for progress, without regard for race, creed, color or political affiliation. Voices ringing out in place of authority to support the interests of the masses of our people, and of all forward-looking programs.

And, as I look down at my desk, piled high each day, with correspondence from all manner of people from all over the world…asking for the counsel and cooperation and leadership of the National Council of Negro Women, I know that one part of this dream at least, has been realized. This is the evidence, wage standards have been raised, social security broadened, government salaries increased. We are being heard!

The soft velvet rug that carpets the staircase that leads to the office of the president has felt the tread of many feet—famous feet and humble feet; the feet of eager workers and the feet of those in need; and tired feet, like my own, these days. I walk through our headquarters, beautifully furnished by friends who caught our vision, free from debt! I walk through the lovely reception room where the great crystal chandelier reflects the colors of the international flags massed behind it—the flags of the world! I go into the paneled library with its conference table, around which so many great minds have met to work at the problems of the past years. I feel a sense of peace.

Women united around The National Council of Negro Women, have made purposeful strides in the march toward democratic living. They have moved mountains. Our headquarters is symbolic of the direction of their going, and of the quality of their leadership in the world of today and tomorrow.

I have no fear for the future of women….May God bless all the women who have united with me in this effort, wherever they may be. They have the brains! May they have the moral power, and grant that He give them the spirit to carry on, to bulwark gains already made, to blaze new trails.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What seems to be the overall message Bethune is trying to convey in this article? What emotions or feelings do you think this article evoked in its readers? Which phrases or expressions do you think particularly inspired these emotions?

2. Bethune's reference to a dream is similar to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech years later. What was Bethune's dream? Did she think that any part of her dream had been realized by the time she wrote this article?

3. What do you think Bethune meant when she referred to the headquarters as "symbolic"? Do you agree that a building can represent something beyond a physical space? Explain your answer.

4. Why do you think it might have been important for Bethune to praise and encourage NCNW members upon her retirement?

Reading 3 was excerpted from Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 192-93.

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