The year was 1935. America was in the depths of the Great Depression, and Jim Crow was very much alive. If your skin was black you couldn’t go into a white restaurant, stay in a white motel, or even drink from a white water fountain. You had to stay in the back of the bus. If you were female, you stayed at very the bottom of the work force, sometimes in near-slave conditions. It would be some 20 years before the civil rights movement burst full-blown into the nation’s consciousness.
But that doesn’t mean people weren’t working for change. One was a visionary named Mary McLeod Bethune, Adviser of Minority Affairs to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bethune said that she could not rest to see the power of Black women was unharnessed. So she called together 28 national women leaders to form “an organization of organizations,” and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) was born.
Bethune led the group until 1955, when the godmother of the civil rights movement, the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height, took the helm. Height stayed until her death in 2010 at age 98. Today, NCNW is the one of the most powerful women’s organizations in the nation, reaching nearly four million women through 39 national affiliates. Continuing the legacy of Bethune and Height is NCNW’s third Executive Director, Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, a widely recognized expert in the fields of race, gender, politics, and policy. I caught up with her recently on my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk.
MB: Not only are you only the third woman to lead the National Council of Negro Women, you’re the youngest. Your predecessor Dorothy Height was a national icon. Was it just a little bit scary when you took over in 2010?
AJ: No one can compare to Dr. Height and Dr. Bethune. Those two broke the mold. The best we can do is hope to live up to their accomplishments and their vision.
MB: Mary McLeod Bethune was an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Did his support lead to the founding of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935.?
AJ: She was also a very good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was her activist background, her work with the president, and the friendship with Eleanor that encouraged her.
MB: Your headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the U.S. Capitol has quite a history, and it’s the essence of poetic justice.
AJ: We are right across the street from Market Square, where slaves were bought and sold. It does seem just that this area is now preserved and maintained by an African-American women’s organization.
MB: Your next leader was the iconic Dr. Dorothy Height. You worked with her before she died. What was that like?
AJ: I’m convinced she had a photographic memory. She could tie together the lessons of history with the needs of contemporary society in a powerful and distinct way. She was a brilliant orator and writer.
MB: Dr. Height was the only woman on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington where the “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. But she wasn’t allowed to speak.
AJ: She clearly understood that [women were second class citizens in the civil rights movement]. She was always a part of the inner circle but women were not allowed to speak, and she knew she had to keep working for women’s rights.
In addition to hosting her radio show, guest contributor Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need!