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The Legacy of Mentoring Lionesses: From Mary McLeod Bethune to Dr. Dorothy Height to Dr. Marian Wright Edelman

“Whatever glory belongs to the race for a development unprecedented in history for the given length of time, a full share belongs to the womanhood of the race.”–Mary McLeod Bethune

“As more women enter public life, I see developing a more humane society. The growth and development of children no longer will depend solely upon the status of their parents . . . Though children cannot vote; their interests will be placed high on the political agenda for they are indeed the future.”–Dr. Dorothy Height

“Children don’t vote but adults who do must stand up and vote for them.”–Dr. Marian Wright Edelman

As the world mourns the passing of Dr. Dorothy Height, I am overwhelmed by the tributes that herald her life and whisper her legacy. She’s godmother . . . matriarch of justice . . . civil rights pioneer . . . unsung giant . . . and mentor. She’s president of the National Council of Negro Women . . . women’s rights activist . . . unmovable force . . . and mentor. She was unafraid to tell it like it is, “Yes, mam Dr. Height” and mentor. She was a mentor, a woman who like the mighty Mississippi poured herself into the lives of many including Dr. Marian Wright Edelman who’s work daily ensures that “No child is left behind.” Yes, there is something to be said about the power of mentoring and the making, hewing, shaping, and fashioning of lionesses. Yes, I said lioness women who with ferocity pursue justice and equality to make change evident in the lives of black women and children. As I think more about the work of Dr. Height and the countless number of women who were empowered by the National Council of Negro Women activities and programs, I realize a part of her legacy is the mentoring of lionesses.

And the reason why she could mentor lionesses is that she was mentored by a fierce deeply committed to justice mentor—Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune. Of course, I didn’t know this until I read Dr. Edelman’s tribute to Dr. Height whereby she mentions that she was mentored by Dr. Height and how Dr. Height was mentored by . . .“If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield”. . . Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune. To be mentored by such a formidable, impassioned, and driven woman as Mrs. Bethune meant you were destined to fight for freedom or die trying.

Mrs. Bethune’s biography alone attests to her tenacity and commitment to empowering black women and children—founder of the National Council of Negro Women and Director of the Division of Negro Affairs which promoted employment for young black people among other social programming for black youth. To say the least, Mrs. Bethune was a lioness in a time when being outspoken about racism and sexism was cause for social and political isolation, but yet she roared a fiery battle cry against injustice. She worked to enrich the lives of black women and children. She was as Dr. Height was a part of the President’s inner advisory circle. Yep, she was definitely a black woman to be reckoned with. And the question is how did she become such a woman, such a lioness?

And I think it has something to do with the mentoring she received when she was in school from Ms. Emma Jean Wilson who took her under her wing and worked to ensure that Mrs. Bethune went to Scotia Seminary on scholarship. I think Ms. Wilson gave her love, support, and as the old folk say, “A firm kick in the rear end” on occasion.  I think Ms. Wilson told her she could do anything even if people looked down at her because she was black and woman. I think Ms. Wilson taught her how to roar . . . how to listen to her own voice . . . how to dig her feet down in the dirt and fight because ending racial oppression and gender oppression is not for the faint of heart . . . it takes a fighting and committed Spirit. Yes, she was lioness who used her roar for justice.

And from the lessons of Ms. Emma Jean Wilson, Mrs. Bethune mentored Dr. Height who mentored Dr. Marian Wright Edelman who mentors countless children through Freedom Schools. What a legacy of lionesses that sheer desperation for freedom and equality produced. And of course I must also pay tribute to Ms. Carolyn Rodgers who was mentored by Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks whose words stir our souls and spirits to act.

Well, all of this makes me think how the world would change if every little black girl who was like Pecola Breedlove could have a Mrs. Bethune or a Dr. Height or a Gwendolyn Brooks as a mentor . . . how the world would change if every little black girl had a fiery at times cantankerous, but deeply loving old black woman soul to guide them into loving their inner lioness. The world would change and change for the better. Once again, (don’t mean to beat a dead horse), but I must say that there is something to be said about the power of mentoring in the lives of black women and girls that they flower under the hand of loving, but firm mentors . . . that they learn something about grace in the face indignity . . . undaunted in the face hopelessness . . . resiliency in what seems like the face of endless oppression.

Perhaps, I should say I wrote this blog in tribute not only to Dr. Height, but also in tribute to the black women who love and mentor me . . . who are daily teaching me how to roar. And so I end with quotes by Mrs. Bethune, Dr. Height, and Dr. Marian Wright Edelman. Each quote reflects their belief in mentoring.

“Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.” –Mary McLeod Bethune

“We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system. But also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity.” –Dr. Dorothy Height

“If we think we have ours and don’t owe any time or money or effort to help those left behind, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to the fraying social fabric that threatens all Americans.” –Marian Wright Edelman