cover image A Passionate Mind in Relentless Pursuit: The Vision of Mary McLeod Bethune

A Passionate Mind in Relentless Pursuit: The Vision of Mary McLeod Bethune

Noliwe Rooks. Penguin Press, $28 (208p) ISBN 978-0-593-49242-0

Rooks (Cutting School), chair of Africana Studies at Brown University, meditates in this probing study on the “talismanic” significance civil rights trailblazer Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) holds in the annals of African American political struggle. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Bethune “moved the needle” on issues including voting rights, child labor laws, and educational opportunities for African Americans. But those are simply “the things Bethune did,” Rooks writes. “To feel her impact, to understand her genius, is a more subtle matter.” Her legacy is nowhere and everywhere, Rooks suggests, overshadowed by movement superstars of the 1960s even as her radical thinking formed a foundational layer of civil rights history; it was Bethune, Rooks shows, who set the movement on the path away from “individualistic” uplift via mutual aid toward lobbying the U.S. government for structural change and collective betterment. Rooks also grapples with Bethune’s promotion of “Black capitalism”—a segregationist-inflected line of thinking that encouraged Black people to primarily do business within their communities—and her late-in-life involvement with the cultlike Moral Re-Armament movement, which sought to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and communism alike with radical selflessness. What emerges from Rooks’s ruminative narrative is a layered portrait of a roving mind that pushed constantly against bounded systems. It makes for a rewarding window onto the nuanced political thinking of the early civil rights movement. (July)