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Friend of the Powerful, Bethune Championed Education

Mary McLeod Bethune was the daughter of former slaves. She grew up picking cotton in South Carolina, but became an organizer of young black women, seeking equal rights and political power. She was a close friend of the American president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, so close that Ms. Bethune was sometimes called "The First Lady of the Struggle."

"Mary McLeod Bethune is somebody that comes out of the tradition that says, 'First and foremost, to effect change in America, you have to educate,'" notes Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. "She wants to ensure that the black community -- especially black women -- receive all the benefits of education. But she also realized that she had to be a politician. She becomes one of the first real power brokers in the so-called 'Black Cabinet' that Eleanor and then Franklin Roosevelt had."

Mary McLeod Bethune delivered these remarks on radio in 1939, on "America's Town Meeting of the Air" in New York City:

"As we have been extended a measure of democracy, we have brought the nation rich gifts. "We have helped to build America with our labor, strengthened it with our faith and enriched it with our son," Bethune told the audience. "But the democratic doors of equal opportunity have not been opened wide to Negroes.

"Black workers in industry are generally assigned to the more laborious and poorly paid work. Their housing and living conditions are sordid and unhealthful. They live too often in terror of the lynch mob, and are humiliated too often by the denial of civil liberties.

"We do not believe that justice and common decency will allow these conditions to continue. Perhaps the greatest battle is before us, in which 12 million Negroes, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Americans, will strive that this nation, under God, will have a new birth of freedom."

According to Lonnie Bunch, "What Mary McLeod Bethune does is say, 'We are worried about the totalitarian rise in Europe. Well, the black community has been here for you in the past, and we will be with you together. Only in creating the democracy that we really say we stand for can we be strong enough to defeat that horde that's knocking on our door.'"

This is one of a series of reports on Say it Plain, a collection of excerpts from 32 memorable speeches by notable African-Americans