The National Council of Negro Women kicks off its 50th anniversary celebration next week with a performance by Bill Cosby at the Kennedy Center -- a fitting start, given the way his television show has retooled the portrayal of black families and the role of black women in particular.
Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the NCNW in 1935 when she was 60 years old, would no doubt be proud of the progress that has been made.
By the time of her death in 1955, television was far short of understanding the black woman's sophistication and commitment to her people.
Although Bethune saw women as the driving force in the maintenance of the black family, church and school, her last days were spent watching black women cast as dim-witted maids in productions like "Beulah" and cantankerous wives in "Amos 'n' Andy."
Had she lived into the 1960s, she would have been somewhat encouraged -- but probably not much. That was the decade in which black women made their television debut as secondary sidekicks to white male stars, and it wasn't until 1965, with the premiere of "I Spy," which costarred Cosby, that a black man and a black woman were allowed to have a relatively normal relationship on a television series.
But the message was getting through, and during the 1970s television was breaking new ground with productions such as "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," "A Woman Called Moses," and "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," a story about a close-knit black family facing racial strife in a rural Mississippi town.
With every two steps forward, however, came one hop back. Before that decade ended, there was a lot of black jive on the screen, from "What's Happening" to "Good Times," and "Sanford and Son" to "The Jeffersons."
Then, in 1984, came "The Cosby Show," with Cosby as a doctor and father and Phylicia Ayers-Allen as a mother and lawyer in the most successful black family ever to hit the television screen. Not only was this a rare two-parent household, it was also like a real family, with everyday problems and solutions based on "Doctor" Cosby's many years of experience with children.
Bethune would have loved it. Here was a show to which all women (and men) could relate. The very issues that the NCNW had dealt with for the past 50 years were being presented on television with utmost effectiveness -- from teen-age pregnancy to drug abuse, from education to recreation.
"It means a great deal to us to have a person who projects so much of what the council stands for," said Dorothy Height, president of the NCNW, which is an umbrella group for organizations with memberships that exceed 4 million women.
"From our inception, we have concentrated on the problems of the black woman and her role in the family and community. The 'Cosby Show' portrays this role beautifully."
Until the "Cosby Show" came along, it appeared that black people didn't know anything about raising legitimate children, that any black child with brains had to be reared by white parents (as in 'Webster' and 'Diff'rent Strokes'), while the only white kid ever to be raised by blacks on television turned out to be "The Jerk," as portrayed by Steve Martin.
Because the beginning of the council's 50th year coincides with the new season premiere of the "Cosby Show," a gala event has been scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Kennedy Center. The "Cosby Show" will be shown in the Concert Hall, and there will be an on-stage performance by Cosby, who still ranks as one of this country's best comedians and authorities on child psychology. He will be honored at a reception before the show.
Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Kennedy Center or the NCNW.
For those who can't make it to see Cosby in person, it's still possible to get Bethune's message about the strength of black families, and especially the determination of the women in them, by simply watching his show when it airs on television.