A half-century ago, when Mary McLeod Bethune came up with the idea of organizing all of the nation's black women's organizations under one umbrella as a way to gain power to deal with their economic and political problems, it was a stroke of sheer genius.

Bethune was a former South Carolina cotton picker who founded a school on a garbage dump. The school grew into a college and Bethune advised United States presidents. Powerful and charismatic, she was also shrewd and practical.

Bethune knew that unifying independent organizations under a single umbrella would be a tough job.

But she pressed ahead and founded the National Council of Negro Women. During 14 years as president, she made the council a major advocate for black women.

Last week in Washington, the council celebrated its 50th anniversary. On that occasion, Dorothy I. Height, the woman who moved the organization closer to realizing Bethune's dream, began her 29th year as its head.

Says historian Bettye Collier-Thomas: "Dorothy Height implemented Bethune's concept . . . vastly expanding the organization's administrative and fiscal base and developing an extensive and impressive array of programs."

With 30 organizations beneath its umbrella and claiming an outreach to 4 million members, the council has developed major programs throughout the United States and in Africa, focusing on youth, employment, civil rights and development.

Besides establishing a black women's archives, the organization spearheaded erection of a Bethune statue here in Lincoln Park, the first memorial to a black American in the nation's capital.

Whereas Bethune's tenure was during the depths of the Depression, Height's leadership encompassed the civil rights movement and its aftermath when issues of social justice pointed a clear direction for an energetic warrior.

Moreover, the council's current focus on such problems as teen-age pregnancy is a realistic recognition that blacks must battle internal forces that threaten their progress.

Further, most black women's groups belong to the council and carry out their own impressive national programs as well.

Just last week, for example, The Links Inc., a 39-year-old black women's public service organization, opened a new national headquarters building at 1200 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

In addition, the group recently made a $1 million gift to the United Negro College Fund.

According to Links President Dolly D. Adams, these achievements are steps in fulfilling a broader mission of providing support services for numerous local and national programs.

The progress of The Links is also an important development for the council concept, for the success of Bethune's idea depends on member groups' maintaining their individual power and integrity even as they work together.

But the question people are asking today is, how successfully has Bethune's original idea of an "organization of organizations" -- wielding real power and affecting economic, political and social change -- been implemented?

The answer is that while the council has achieved many of its original aims and racked up impressive achievements against the odds, in a larger sense the challenge of achieving real power remains.

Building on faith, dreams and determination, women such as Bethune and Height have made significant contributions to black women and the nation.

Today's black women face such enormous problems as the devastating gap between the haves and have-nots and the feminization of poverty.

So another question being raised is, how will the next generation advance black women's progress after the era of the 73-year-old Height ends?

Many younger women attended last week's anniversary celebrations. Some have taken their places in the organization's higher echelons of leadership, but there are far too few.

If Bethune's dream of power for black women through unity is to continue to live, this organization must move with more vigor to attract this generation's young women.