Changemaker: Mary McLeod Bethune

Discover how an early civil rights leader found inspiration in Scripture

The Changemakers Series is designed to inform and inspire you with stories of ordinary people who dedicated their lives to spreading God’s Word around the world. Today, meet Mary McLeod Bethune, whose fight for racial equality and educational opportunity was inspired by biblical values like freedom, justice, and unity.

Mary McLeod Bethune was an educational leader, presidential advisor, and advocate for racial equality. Throughout her 80-year life, which spanned the era between slavery and the modern civil rights movement, she found inspiration and purpose in God’s Word. Now, she is one of the Changemakers featured in the Faith and Liberty Bible. Mary McLeod Bethune, born in 1875, was the 15th of 17 children. Her parents, Patsy and Samuel McLeod, and several of her older siblings had been enslaved until the Civil War ended a decade prior. After their emancipation, Patsy and Samuel moved to a small farm near Mayesville, South Carolina.

On a Mission for Educational Rights

As a child, Bethune worked in cotton fields and attended a mission school. While her parents had a strong faith, Bethune didn’t fully understand the gospel until a teacher read John 3:16 aloud: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV).

She later described how hearing those words helped launch her lifelong quest for equality:

With these words the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in. My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps, dropped away: “Whosoever,” it said. No Jew nor Gentile, no Catholic or Protestant, no black nor white, just “whosoever.” It meant that I, a humble Negro girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God. These words stored up a battery of faith and confidence and determination in my heart, which has not failed me to this day. I could scarcely wait to run home and tell my mother. For the first time, I gathered the family in a circle around me and read aloud to them from the Good Book. “Praise the Lord,” cried my mother. “Hallelujah.” That night I drove the first nail of my life work.

Bethune was a gifted student and soon won a scholarship to Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in North Carolina. Later, she spent a year at Moody Bible Institute. Her original plan was to pursue foreign missions, but racial segregation meant that few churches would consider sending an African American woman abroad. Instead, Bethune turned her focus to helping other young African American girls become leaders by helping them get a high-quality education.

In 1904, Bethune’s dream of starting a school became reality when she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida, creating Bethune-Cookman College (now Bethune-Cookman University). Bethune served as the college’s first president.

Bethune joined in several associations dedicated to advancing education in African American communities. She founded the National Council of Negro Women and by 1930 was widely recognized as a leader in the fight for racial equality. An invitation to attend a conference at the White House led to the next phase of Bethune’s career and to her growing influence. Bethune had met Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt several years before her arrival in Washington, D.C. She and Eleanor developed a friendship that would last decades and made Bethune an influential voice during President Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency.

Working for Change Across the Nation

For Bethune, taking an active role in American democracy aligned with her vision for a new day in the nation, guided by the Bible’s values of justice, unity, and true freedom. She said:

Democracy is for me, and for 12 million black Americans, a goal towards which our nation is marching. It is a dream and an ideal in whose ultimate realization we have a deep and abiding faith. For me, it is based on Christianity, in which we confidently entrust our destiny as a people. Under God’s guidance in this great democracy, we are rising out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom …

Perhaps the greatest battle is before us, the fight for a new America: fearless, free, united, morally re-armed, 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, and that the government of the people, for the people, and by the people shall not perish from the earth. This dream, this idea, this aspiration, this is what American democracy means to me.

Bethune joined the Roosevelt administration in 1936 and was appointed Director of Negro Affairs in 1939. She continued to advance educational equality by creating a college fund that helped more than 4,000 African American students pursue their education. She also founded what she called the “Black Cabinet,” which helped advise the president.

Under Bethune’s leadership, the Cabinet worked to create legislation to outlaw lynching and poll taxes in the South, organized jobs for African Americans under the New Deal, and contributed to the presidential executive order that desegregated military and defense industries during World War II. While not all their legislation was successful, Bethune’s Cabinet became an early inspiration for future civil rights leaders in their efforts to end segregation laws in the United States.

During World War II, Bethune balanced her love for her nation and addressing ongoing issues of racism against African Americans. By serving her nation, she was also holding the United States accountable for its promise of liberty and justice for all Americans: “We must not fail America, and as Americans, we must not let America fail us.” As part of her role, Bethune organized war bond drives and blood drives and helped recruit African American women for army officer training. She also regularly called President Roosevelt’s attention to instances of discrimination and violence against African American military members and wartime workers.

Bethune advised President Roosevelt until his death in 1945. She honored his legacy in a nationwide radio program and often walked with one of the president’s canes, which was gifted to her by Eleanor Roosevelt. After the war, Bethune was appointed by President Harry Truman to help draft the United Nations charter. She was invited to visit Haiti and Liberia, where she was awarded those nations’ highest honors for her work on behalf of racial equality. Over her lifetime, she also received 11 honorary degrees from colleges in the United States. In the final 15 years of her life, she served as the vice president of the NAACP.

A Vision for a Better World

Bethune passed away in 1955. Her published last will and testament offers a hopeful vision for those who would carry on her work:

I leave you hope … Yesterday our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.

Throughout her life, Bethune helped create the better world she envisioned for future generations. Her legacy reminds us of the incredible things God can do through men and women who are inspired by his Word:

What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.

1 Corinthians 2:9 GNT

As we look back on the life of Mary McLeod Bethune and other Changemakers who have guided our history, we thank God for the people who champion the Bible cause around the world. Today, ask yourself how you can share the transformative message of God’s Word with the people in your life and become a Changemaker for our own time!

Blog Sources

Mary McLeod Bethune. The National WW II Museum.

Mary McLeod Bethune. Women & the American Story. New-York Historical Society.

The Faith and Liberty Bible. American Bible Society. 2021.

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Elisabeth Trefsgar
Elisabeth Trefsgar

Elisabeth Trefsgar is a content specialist for American Bible Society. She has made a home in New Jersey and Sofia, Bulgaria, and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. She is passionate about seeing communities around the world flourish through the power of God's Word and the efforts of the local church. When she isn't writing, you can find her reading good stories, photographing local sights, and spending time with friends.

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