By 1960, the most profound changes in the status of black Americans since Emancipation were well under way. As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other civil rights groups began to utilize the techniques of nonviolence to force social and political change, violence erupted in Alabama, Mississippi, and other Southern cities. The NCNW, through its volunteer network, which included a number of militant young black women, moved into rural communities and urban areas and immediately began to set up workshops to define problems and develop strategies for addressing the needs of black Americans. The NCNW identified local, state, and national resources that were available for program development in these areas. The NCNW was one of the first national organizations of black women to be recognized by the federal government as possessing the capabilities for coordinating and implementing major government-sponsored programs.
Beginning with President John F. Kennedy and continuing with President Lyndon B. Johnson, there seemed to be a solid commitment to providing opportunities for black Americans and women. As the Great Society and War on Poverty programs were launched, the federal government sought organizations and institutions capable of implementing programs at the local level. They turned to the NAACP, the Urban League, the NCNW, the SCLC and several other organizations for guidance and direction in defining the needs and programs that would serve the poor and dispossessed. The NCNW, using the skills of both educated and uneducated black women, developed self-help programs such as Wednesdays in Mississippi, the Okolona Day Care Center, Project Homes, and Operation Daily Bread.
Mary McLeod Bethune understood the nature and function of power, and believed that if black women could be united in purpose they could be a potent force for effecting economic, political, and social change. She knew that they could not be as effective as individuals and separate organizations as through an organization of organizations. In effect, Bethune was asking black women’s organizations to give up a little power to acquire great power. Some heads of black women’s organizations interpreted unification as a threat to their personal power bases, frequently defined by their leadership in a national organization.
Prior to the 1940s, there had been many black female leaders, but Mary McLeod Bethune became the first to function as an equal with black male leaders. The NCNW records demonstrate that W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, Carter G. Woodson, and others had immense respect for her. Indeed, she frequently opened new doors by taking the views of the black leadership into areas unknown and inaccessible to even the most prominent race leaders. Yet, even though Bethune had immense personal power and was able to build respect and credibility for her new organization, she was not able to build the kind of financial and administrative capability necessary to sustain the national council concept.
The accomplishments of Dorothy Height’s administration have enhanced NCNW’s prominence and recognition. Achievements notwithstanding, the NCNW has yet to realize the goal of unifying national black women’s organizations. The goal is as elusive today as it was when the council first formed. The growth in numbers and power of the major sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, and the advent of new organizations, such as the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, present powerful challenges to the NCNW’s goal of unification. Many national black women’s organizations have become disillusioned with the NCNW’s leadership and its fiscal instability. Some maintain a pro forma relationship with the NCNW—they pay the annual affiliate membership fee to keep a place on the board. Many are concerned about the lack of new leadership and are looking forward to the identification of Height’s successor. Members of many affiliate groups feel that their organizations are more viable than the NCNW. Nonetheless, in less than half a century the National Council of Negro Women achieved many of the goals articulated by Mary McLeod Bethune. Collaboration and coalition building have proven key to harnessing the power of 4 million women.