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Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women

Educator and reformer Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) dedicated her life to empowering Black women to work for equality. First through the school she founded in Daytona Beach, Florida (known today as Bethune-Cookman University), and later as a national organization leader and federal government official, she carved out new roles and created new opportunities for women in the public sphere. In addition to supporting grassroots activism, Bethune emphasized the need for African Americans to participate in the political system as both voters and policymakers. She also looked to build interracial coalitions and exercise collective power on a national scale in order to bring about major civil rights reforms.

Bethune’s commitment to African American women’s political empowerment found its greatest and most lasting expression through the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the organization she founded in 1935. Building on her experience as a leader of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Bethune created the NCNW as “the central Wheel” that would unite and channel the activities of women’s organizations across the country. Under the leadership of Bethune and her successors, the NCNW gained political recognition for African American women, established a national agenda for social justice issues, and helped lay the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Photograph of education department meeting in the conference room of the NCNW Council House

SectionIssues on the Table

1947: The NCNW’s 10-Point Action Program

NCNW’s “10-Point Action Program,” Aframerican Woman’s Journal, 1947–1948

At its annual convention in 1947, the National Council of Negro Women adopted a “10-Point Action Program,” listing its highest priorities for political action. This agenda, developed by Mary McLeod Bethune and other NCNW leaders, reflected the issues of great concern to African American women across the country. While times have changed, the issues listed by the NCNW in 1947 are still key concerns in American society today.

NCNW’s “10-Point Action Program,” Aframerican Woman’s Journal, 1947–1948

Voting RightsRemoval of all voting restrictions in all elections, including primaries.
Fair HousingEnactment of legislation outlawing restrictive covenants and other devices which conspire to perpetuate discrimination and segregation in housing.
Hate CrimesEnactment by Congress of an anti-lynching bill which provides heavy prison terms and fines for lynch mobsters and/or conspiring state officers.
Equal Funding for EducationEnactment of a Federal Aid to Education bill with adequate safeguards prohibiting discrimination in the administration and allocation of funds.
Equal Employment and Minimum WageEnactment of legislation to outlaw discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin; enactment of minimum wage legislation; enactment of legislation aimed at improving wage and working standards.
World PeaceStudy of the UN as an instrument for world peace and support of its efforts to maintain world order and peace.
World HungerParticipation in food conservation program to feed the suffering peoples of the world.
Social SecuritySupport of an amendment to the present Social Security Act to increase benefits and extend coverage to domestic, agricultural, and other workers.
Access to Health CareAction for extension of public health services, both on the national and local levels.
Youth ProgramsPromotion of a program of youth conservation with specific emphasis on the prevention and control of juvenile delinquency.

2016–2017: NMAAHC Visitors Respond

Visitors explore “Issues on the Table” in Making a Way Out of No Way, 2016

The Making a Way Out of No Way exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016 with a special room dedicated to the story of Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women. At the center of the room was a table, inspired by the conference table at the Council House, which described the NCNW’s 10-Point Action Program and invited visitors to respond to the following questions: What issues matter most to you, your family, and your community? What actions would you propose to create change? Below is a sampling of written responses submitted by visitors in 2016 and 2017.

Visitors explore “Issues on the Table” in Making a Way Out of No Way, 2016