By Dr. E. Faye Williams
Only the unprincipled few will complain about honoring a person of talent, commitment, intellect, accomplishment, and impeccable character. Most will demand that all appropriate honors be conferred in a timely manner upon such a person.
Although there is increased emphasis placed in honoring African Americans of accomplishment, these honors are generally untimely. They usually result from orchestrated public and private effort and intense pressure. While celebrating these honors, fair-thinkers ask, “What took so long!” Once more, recent events have thrust us into that circumstance.
On July 13, 2022, a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune was installed in the National Statuary Hall of the US Congress, the first African American woman, honored for championing civil rights and the education of “the race.” In 1904, when she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, the Civil War was less than forty years from its end. When formerly enslaved persons and their offspring still suffered from the imposition of illiteracy, she was an advocate of the necessity of education to the socio/economic elevation of African Americans.
In 1923, the school that Ms. Bethune founded with $1.50 and six students merged with The Cookman Institute for Boys (founded in Jacksonville, FL in 1872). Through several iterations the school has developed into The Bethune-Cookman University, a Historically Black College and University.
Ms. Bethune also focused on the freedom for minds and bodies, and full citizenship for African Americans. She became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and an advocate for African Americans from the schoolhouse to the White House.
The US Capitol is adorned with two statues from each state which honor two citizens of note. Through Florida’s legislative process, Ms. Bethune’s statue was designated to replace Florida’s statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith who surrendered in Galveston, TX, leading to the end of the war and the day we celebrate as Juneteenth.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Bethune’s placement as “trading a traitor for a civil rights hero.” She lauded Ms. Bethune as “the pride of Florida and America.”
Lawrence M. Drake II, the interim president of Bethune-Cookman University said, “Our hearts are rejoicing today seeing our founder and namesake take her rightful place among the most distinguished Americans.”
Representative Val Demings, (D) Florida and recipient of an honorary doctorate from Bethune-Cookman University, said, “Her labor of love could not be contained in her years on this earth. Her contributions will touch generations yet unborn. She was bold, courageous. And although her journey had its triumphs and its struggles, Dr. Mary Bethune never wavered.”
Representative Steny H. Hoyer, (D) Maryland and House Majority Leader said, “Symbols of hate and division have no place in the halls of Congress. We can’t change history, but we can certainly make it clear that which we honor and that which we do not honor.”
Thelma T. Daley. President of the National Council of Negro Women said, “All two million of us should be beaming with untold pride as our renowned Founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, stands majestically… in the Capitol of the United States of America!!!
President Daley paraphrased Ms. Bethune, saying, “My sons and daughters, you are the United Nations of the world. I pass the torch to you. Take the torch higher and higher. Build a bridge that unites men and women of the world in the name of freedom and justice. Build that bridge in the name of tolerance. Build it in the name of human rights. Build that bridge in the name of peace and prosperity. Build it in the name of God.”
(Dr. E. Faye Williams, Esq. is a minister, a UN Peace Ambassador, President of the Dick Gregory Society, author of “Dick Gregory: Wake Up and Stay Woke,” and Host of “Wake Up and Stay Woke” on WPFW-FM-89.3 radio, as well as a columnist for Trice Edney Wire Service.)