by Elizabeth Ellis
In this excerpt from a longer story, Elizabeth tells of the time Mary McLeod Bethune faced down the Ku Klux Klan to provide education for African-American girls.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Mary-McLeod-Bethune-An-American-Educator-and-Civil-Rights-Leader
- If you read a biographical sketch of Mary McLeod Bethune on the internet, it will tell you a lot about her accomplishments. You won’t read much about her challenges. Why do you think that is the case?
- Which was a greater challenge to Mary McLeod Bethune – racism or poverty? How are the two linked?
- How does secrecy protect hate? Is there a connection between this and cyber bullying today? What is that connection?
- Mary McLeod Bethune by Elouise Greenfield – a picture book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
- African American/Black History
- Civil Rights Movement
- Education and Life Lessons
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Ellis and this story happened in Florida about 1910. Ku Klux Klan sent word to Mary McLeod Bethune that she better not try to educate any more African-American children. But she got in her buggy, and she went down every little back road begging mothers and
fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers to send their children to her school. And when she opened the doors that fall, she had twice as many children enrolled as she’d had the year before. So, the Klan decided it was time they paid her a visit.
She was sittin’ at her desk makin’ out a test for the next day’s lesson when a little boy came thunderin’ in. He said, “They’re comin’!”
She said, “Who’s comin’?” but she already knew the answer.
He said, “Men with guns and clubs. My daddy says you can’t be here when they get here.”
She said, “Run home. Tell your daddy I said, ‘Thank you.’”
She knew that the little boy’s daddy had risked his life to send her that message. She hastened out into the big room of her school and she began to toll on a rope attached to an old bell. She could hear feet comin’ from all over the building and when everybody gathered together, she said, “The Klan is on its way to pay us a visit.”
And there was a murmur of fear that ran through the room. Even the youngest of the children had heard about the beatings and the lynchings.
She said, “You teachers, you turn out all the lights and when I clap my hands for the signal, flip on every light at once.”
One teacher asked her the only question, “Won’t that make us a bigger target?”
“Do what I ask.” she said. And they did.
She turned to the students and she said, “You, little ones, you stay where you are. You try not to be afraid. You, older ones, you come with me. We’ll go and meet them.”
And they trusted her, so, they followed her. She went out and stood right in front of her school building. And the children arranged themselves on the steps of the school and rose the way they always did whenever there were visitors to the school. By now, you could look down the road and see 30 or 40 pairs of headlights coming down the road from town. And still, she stood and she waited.
When the first car came to the end of her driveway, it stopped and a man got out in a long, white robe and a tall, pointed cap with a mask across his face. In the glare of the headlights, you could see the purple insignia of the Ku Klux Klan. He stood there and he held all the traffic back that was going in the other direction. So that the whole motorcade could pass down her driveway without being interrupted. And still, she stood and she waited.
And when the headlights of the first car flashed across her body, she clapped her hands for the signal and every light behind her went on at once. Standin’ there with that bright light shinin’ in front and behind her, she looked like some tall, dark, avenging angel. And she opened her mouth and she began to sing an old song, born of her people’s pain and their perseverance, “When Israel was in Egypt land,” and the children on the steps behind her answered back like they always did when that old song was sung, “Let my people go.”
And that first car just kept inching past her. So, her voice grew stronger and the children sang out louder. And the next car just kept inching past her. If you had been there, it might have looked to you like a parade passing in review, in front of an old woman and a school full of children, as they sat… stood there and sang out their faith. Not one car stopped!
The men in those cars began to hunker down, like they’d realized what it meant for a bunch of grown men armed with cut… guns and clubs to go after a school full of children and an old woman. Now, I wish I could tell you that Mary McLeod Bethune never had any more trouble with the Klan, but you and I both know that ignorance takes a long time to die, doesn’t it? I can tell ya, her school never closed. You could visit it today. It’s called Bethune-Cookman college.
Mary McLeod Bethune went on to be a world-renowned educator, on the Presidential Cabinet of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a close personal friend of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was honored and respected.
She touched the lives of thousands of people. Why was she able to do that? She was able to do it because she was able to get an education. And how did the daughter of sharecroppers who had been slaves get an education?
Oh, a white woman livin’ in Denver, Colorado read an article in the newspaper about the plight of African-American children and how they couldn’t get an education.
And she said to herself, “Five days a week, I work as a dressmaker to support myself and my family. I could work a sixth day, and with what I earn on that sixth day, I could send that money to educate one child.”
And that’s what she did. She never met Mary McLeod Bethune but she changed Mary McLeod Bethune’s life, and through Mary McLeod Bethune, the lives of thousands of other people.
Can one peop… person make a difference? Huh? Can one person make a difference? Hh. What a silly question!