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Mary McLeod Bethune: ‘I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world’

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
Founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach

The daughter of former slaves, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was one of the most important educators and civil and women’s rights leaders of the 20th century. As adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was the first Black woman to serve in a national role, advocating for young people. She is best-known for founding Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. 

Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most important civil and women’s rights leaders of the 20th century.

Editor’s note: The Post is printing Dr. Bethune’s will today, 70 years after it was written, because it is still thought-provoking. It has been slightly edited for space. Dr. Bethune used the term “Negro” throughout this document, as was the custom of the 1950s. That word has been changed to Black in most references.

Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams — full equality for Blacks in our time — is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction.

Sometimes I ask myself if I have any other legacy to leave. Truly, my worldly possessions are few.  Yet, my experiences have been rich. From them, I have distilled principles and policies in which I believe firmly, for they represent the meaning of my life's work. They are the products of much sweat and sorrow.

Perhaps in them there is something of value. So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass them on to Blacks everywhere in the hope that an old woman's philosophy may give them inspiration. Here, then is my legacy.

I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man's skin, color or religion, is held against him. "Love thy neighbor" is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced. It connotes brotherhood and, to me, brotherhood of man is the noblest concept in all human relations. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.

I LEAVE YOU HOPE. The growth of Black Americans will be great in the years to come. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our economic and political strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Black American, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless striving and struggle. Theirs will be a better world.  This I believe with all my heart.

I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Blacks are hemmed into racial blocks by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment. Black-owned banks, insurance companies and other businesses are examples of successful, racial economic enterprises. These institutions were made possible by vision and mutual aid. Confidence was vital in getting them started and keeping them going. Blacks have got to demonstrate still more confidence in each other in business. This kind of confidence will aid the economic rise of the race by bringing together the pennies and dollars of our people and ploughing them into useful channels. Economic separatism cannot be tolerated in this enlightened age, and it is not practicable. We must spread out as far and as fast as we can, but we must also help each other as we go.

I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Blacks are taking full advantage of hard-won opportunities for learning, and the educational level of the Black population is at its highest point in history. We are making greater use of the privileges inherent in living in a democracy.   If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health and education.

I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force. During my lifetime I have seen the power of Black people grow enormously. It has always been my first concern that this power should be placed on the side of human justice.

I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too, is faith in oneself.  In 50 years the faith of the American Black in himself has grown immensely and is still increasing...Our forefathers struggled for liberty in conditions far more onerous than those we now face, but they never lost the faith. Their perseverance paid rich dividends. We must never forget their sufferings and their sacrifices, for they were the foundations of the progress of our people.

I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY.  I want Blacks to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Black Americans, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind's development. We must learn also to share and mix with all men. We must make an effort to be less race conscious and more conscious of individual and human values. I have never been sensitive about my complexion.  My color has never destroyed my self-respect nor has it ever caused me to conduct myself in such a manner as to merit the disrespect of any person. I have not let my color handicap me. Despite many crushing burdens and handicaps, I have risen from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a college, administer it during its years of growth, become a public servant in the government of our country and a leader of women. I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world, for had I been born white I might not have been able to do all that I have done or yet hope to do.

I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN. The problem of color is worldwide. It is found in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America. I appeal to American Blacks — North, South, East and West — to recognize their common problems and unite to solve them.

I pray that we will learn to live harmoniously with the white race. So often, our difficulties have made us hypersensitive and truculent. I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships — fully conscious of their many responsibilities and deeply aware of their heritage. I want them to learn to understand whites and influence them for good, for it is advisable and sensible for us to do so. We are a minority of 15 million living side by side with a white majority. We must learn to deal with these people positively and on an individual basis.

I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination.  We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.

Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility — these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for Black Americans. We must sharpen these tools in the struggle that faces us and find new ways of using them. The Freedom Gates are half-ajar. We must pry them fully open.

When she was First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt — pictured here writing in Florida in an undated photo — stayed at Mary McLeod Bethune's home on three separate occasions. (Florida Photographic Archives)

If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood and Love.

WOMEN MAKING HISTORY: 100 years of the vote

Today and for the next three Tuesdays, Accent will feature activist women who have made history in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida, including today's feature on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), who was a dear friend of Alice Mickens of West Palm Beach and often visited Mickens' home here. Bethune fought for gender and racial equality all her life. She was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945.

Next Tuesday in Accent: Alice Mickens' front porch

The front porch of the historic Mickens home on Division Avenue in West Palm Beach witnessed a parade of the most influential Black leaders of the first half of the 20th century.