It’s hard for me to imagine what it is like to not know who Dorothy Height was.
She was a household name in my family. Not just because in 1957 Height was elected the fourth national president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), where she served until 1998, when she became chair and president emerita. Not just because her mentor was Mary McLeod Bethune. She was a president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority—and since my mom was a Delta, to her, Height was a queen. (For more background, here are links to stories I’ve written about black sororities and fraternities, and about Mrs. Bethune too.)
My black world never seems to be a part of the white world I automatically have to be cognizant of and well-versed in. I hope this will help change that.
If you can find the time, I strongly suggest you watch this documentary on her life and times.
You will be changed.
Thanks to the efforts of the National Visionary Leadership Project, the voices of many of our black elders have been recorded for posterity. The project’s website includes this mission statement: “The mission of the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP) is to develop the next generation of leaders by recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of extraordinary African American elders–Visionaries—who have transcended barriers, shaped American history, and influenced the world through the rich African American tradition of social change.”
Dr. Height’s autobiography Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir, is a must-read.
Dorothy Height marched at civil rights rallies, sat through tense White House meetings, and witnessed every major victory in the struggle for racial equality. Yet as the sole woman among powerful, charismatic men, someone whose personal ambition was secondary to her passion for her cause, she has received little mainstream recognition–until now. In her memoir, Dr. Height, now ninety-one, reflects on a life of service and leadership. We witness her childhood encounters with racism and the thrill of New York college life during the Harlem Renaissance. We see her protest against lynchings. We sit with her onstage as Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. We meet people she knew intimately throughout the decades: W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Langston Hughes, and many others. And we watch as she leads the National Council of Negro Women for forty-one years, her diplomatic counsel sought by U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.
After the fierce battles of the 1960s, Dr. Height concentrates on troubled black communities, on issues like rural poverty, teen pregnancy and black family values. In 1994, her efforts are officially recognized. Along with Rosa Parks, she receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Some of the details of her early life stood out for me. Lest you relegate racial discrimination to the South, Height talks about the events around her acceptance to Barnard College, one of the elite “Seven Sisters” colleges.
“In the summer of 1929 I [received] a telegram asking me to report for an interview at Barnard. When I arrived, breathless, in the office of the dean, I was asked to have a seat. It seemed an eternity before the dean finally came to speak to me. I apologized for being late. It didn’t matter, she said. Although I had been accepted, they could not admit me. It took me a while to realize that their decision was a racial matter: Barnard had a quota of two Negro students per year, and two others had already taken the spots.”
In 2004, The Washington Post reported in an article titled, “After 75 Years, Barnard Makes Activist an Alumna”:
“I came all the way from Rankin, Pa.,” said Height, who had attended integrated schools all her life. “I could barely eat or sleep” after school officials rejected her. “It was such a shock to me. I never thought there would be a racial quota.” Height instead attended New York University, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years – and went on to a lifetime of leadership in the civil rights movement.
Barnard College President Judith Shapiro read a citation praising Height and bestowing alumna status on her to mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling against de jure segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. “We were enthusiastic to do this,” Shapiro said in an interview, “and we are grateful that she is willing to see that times have changed and to forgive her alma mater.”
Marsha Coleman Adebayo, the Alumnae of Color member who suggested the award, said, “It’s an important statement for all the women of color who have come through Barnard. . . . This college has taken on the responsibility of acknowledging the horrible deed that happened to Dr. Height.”
Upon Dr. Height’s death, Shapiro posted an apology in The New York Times.
I also suggest you read Dr. Height’s Living With Purpose, published in 2012, described by its publisher as
An Activist’s Guide to Listening, Learning and Leading. In Living With Purpose, Dorothy Height, brings a century of her experiences and insights to address one of the most pressing questions we all must face—how we can fundamentally connect with our true purpose in life and act upon it. She shares with us the first hand lessons she has learned from teachers from all walks of life—from people in our history books like Eleanor Roosevelt, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune—and equally from so those known only to a few, from a young boy in rural 1950s India to the mothers of the young girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Dr. Height helps us understand what we need to do on the inside to set the table and how to effectively work with others to move forward powerfully.
There is no mystery behind the fact that many of the women who were key to the success of the civil rights movement are not household names. In recent years, there have been efforts to change that—but there is still much more work to be done.
Last year, The New York Times published a piece titled “50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, Remembering the Women Who Steered the Movement.” Among the women it highlighted was Dr. Height.
Dorothy I. Height was a few feet away from Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. As president of the National Council of Negro Women, she was part of an elite group of organization presidents — including Dr. King; John Lewis, then the president of SNCC; and Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League — called “The Big Six.” But photographers would often crop her out of pictures — or even request her removal while shooting, said Karsonya Whitehead, an associate professor at Loyola University in Maryland. “She was asked to step aside,” Ms. Whitehead said.
See how many of the other women featured—Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Juanita Jones Abernathy, Septima Clark, Dorothy Cotton, Bernice Johnson Reagon—you are familiar with.
The leadership of the movement was often referred to as “The Big Six,” a reference to the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL). Those six were actually seven, the missing group the National Council of Negro Women, headed by Dr. Height.
Few people know that it was Dr. Height who got the young “rabble-rousers” from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) a seat at the table. In her autobiography, she wrote:
I smile when I recall the meeting which I suggested including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the civil rights leadership. The youthful members of SNCC, full of revolutionary zeal, were using tactics some saw as counterproductive. But I was concerned that the young people were not at the table. Whatever our differences, we needed our young people with us — we needed to support each other. I was very pleased when my colleagues agreed to admit SNCC to the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Within SNCC, the national chairman and the executive director shared power, so either chair James Forman or executive John L. Lewis — but not both — could attend any given CUCRL meeting.
Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964, by Debbie Z. Harwell, explores a little-known piece of the civil rights movement.
As tensions mounted before Freedom Summer, one organization tackled the divide by opening lines of communication at the request of local women: Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS). Employing an unusual and deliberately feminine approach, WIMS brought interracial, interfaith teams of northern middle-aged, middle- and upper-class women to Mississippi to meet with their southern counterparts. Sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), WIMS operated on the belief that the northern participants’ gender, age, and class would serve as an entrée to southerners who had dismissed other civil rights activists as radicals. The WIMS teams’ respectable appearance and quiet approach enabled them to build understanding across race, region, and religion where other overtures had failed.
The only civil rights program created for women by women as part of a national organization, WIMS offers a new paradigm through which to study civil rights activism, challenging the stereotype of Freedom Summer activists as young student radicals and demonstrating the effectiveness of the subtle approach taken by “proper ladies.” The book delves into the motivations for women’s civil rights activism and the role religion played in influencing supporters and opponents of the civil rights movement. Lastly, it confirms that the NCNW actively worked for integration and black voting rights while also addressing education, poverty, hunger, housing, and employment as civil rights issues.
After successful efforts in 1964 and 1965, WIMS became Workshops in Mississippi, which strived to alleviate the specific needs of poor women. Projects that grew from these efforts still operate today.
I admit, I grinned when I read this. I was one of the grubby, rabble-rousing black activist youths back in the day. My mom and her sister were ladies of the Dorothy Height stripe. They did civil rights work too—they just weren’t out in the streets. My mother kept a closet at home filled with clothing just for my infrequent visits. Suits, church hats, gloves, shoes, and stockings for me to don when I showed up in jeans and army jackets. She laid down the law: If I was going anywhere with her, I’d dress by her code.
My mom, her sorority sisters and friends raised money—tirelessly. They tutored kids, they volunteered. They educated. All in hats and gloves. Too often we fail to recognize the strength, determination, and contributions of black middle-class women.
Dr. Height’s life, works, and honors are too long to list in this post. Take a look at this timeline.
I was joyous when I saw her postage stamp.
Wearing purple corsages as tribute to her legacy, her great-great niece and others remembered the civil rights icon on Wednesday. Congressman John Lewis spoke of Height’s courage, calling the stamp a well-deserved honor.
“She was a mover and a shaker. She didn’t take no for an answer. She was always on point. She was insistent and persistent,” Rep.Lewis said. “She stood for the timeless values that make this country great. Equality, justice and liberty.”
Dr. Paulette C. Walker, National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority said it is no surprise that Height’s legacy continues to inspire.
“She was on the front lines fighting for the equality of all people for more than half a century,” Walker said in a statement to NBCBLK. “It is because of her impenetrable resolve to stand for the civil and human rights of women, families, and children that we are afforded the freedoms enjoyed today.”
All lives come to an end. Dorothy Irene Height died on April 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 98. President Barack Obama delivered her funeral eulogy.
THE PRESIDENT: Please be seated. Let me begin by saying a word to Dr. Dorothy Height’s sister, Ms. Aldridge. To some, she was a mentor. To all, she was a friend. But to you, she was family, and my family offers yours our sympathy for your loss.
We are gathered here today to celebrate the life, and mourn the passing, of Dr. Dorothy Height. It is fitting that we do so here, in our National Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Here, in a place of great honor. Here, in the House of God. Surrounded by the love of family and of friends. The love in this sanctuary is a testament to a life lived righteously; a life that lifted other lives; a life that changed this country for the better over the course of nearly one century here on Earth.
Michelle and I didn’t know Dr. Height as well, or as long, as many of you. We were reminded during a previous moment in the service, when you have a nephew who’s 88 — (laughter) — you’ve lived a full life. (Applause.)
But we did come to know her in the early days of my campaign. And we came to love her, as so many loved her. We came to love her stories. And we loved her smile. And we loved those hats — (laughter) — that she wore like a crown — regal. In the White House, she was a regular. She came by not once, not twice — 21 times she stopped by the White House. (Laughter and applause.) Took part in our discussions around health care reform in her final months.
Last February, I was scheduled to see her and other civil rights leaders to discuss the pressing problems of unemployment — Reverend Sharpton, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Marc Morial of the National Urban League. Then we discovered that Washington was about to be blanketed by the worst blizzard in record — two feet of snow.
So I suggested to one of my aides, we should call Dr. Height and say we’re happy to reschedule the meeting. Certainly if the others come, she should not feel obliged. True to form, Dr. Height insisted on coming, despite the blizzard, never mind that she was in a wheelchair. She was not about to let just a bunch of men — (laughter) — in this meeting. (Applause.) It was only when the car literally could not get to her driveway that she reluctantly decided to stay home. But she still sent a message — (laughter) — about what needed to be done.
And I tell that story partly because it brings a smile to my face, but also because it captures the quiet, dogged, dignified persistence that all of us who loved Dr. Height came to know so well — an attribute that we understand she learned early on.
Born in the capital of the old Confederacy, brought north by her parents as part of that great migration, Dr. Height was raised in another age, in a different America, beyond the experience of many. It’s hard to imagine, I think, life in the first decades of that last century when the elderly woman that we knew was only a girl. Jim Crow ruled the South. The Klan was on the rise — a powerful political force. Lynching was all too often the penalty for the offense of black skin. Slaves had been freed within living memory, but too often, their children, their grandchildren remained captive, because they were denied justice and denied equality, denied opportunity, denied a chance to pursue their dreams.
The progress that followed — progress that so many of you helped to achieve, progress that ultimately made it possible for Michelle and me to be here as President and First Lady — that progress came slowly. (Applause.)
Progress came from the collective effort of multiple generations of Americans. From preachers and lawyers, and thinkers and doers, men and women like Dr. Height, who took it upon themselves — often at great risk — to change this country for the better. From men like W.E.B Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph; women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Betty Friedan — they’re Americans whose names we know. They are leaders whose legacies we teach. They are giants who fill our history books. Well, Dr. Dorothy Height deserves a place in this pantheon. She, too, deserves a place in our history books. (Applause.) She, too, deserves a place of honor in America’s memory.
Look at her body of work. Desegregating the YWCA. Laying the groundwork for integration on Wednesdays in Mississippi. Lending pigs to poor farmers as a sustainable source of income. Strategizing with civil rights leaders, holding her own, the only woman in the room, Queen Esther to this Moses Generation — even as she led the National Council of Negro Women with vision and energy — (applause) — with vision and energy, vision and class.
But we remember her not solely for all she did during the civil rights movement. We remember her for all she did over a lifetime, behind the scenes, to broaden the movement’s reach. To shine a light on stable families and tight-knit communities. To make us see the drive for civil rights and women’s rights not as a separate struggle, but as part of a larger movement to secure the rights of all humanity, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity.
It’s an unambiguous record of righteous work, worthy of remembrance, worthy of recognition. And yet, one of the ironies is, is that year after year, decade in, decade out, Dr. Height went about her work quietly, without fanfare, without self-promotion. She never cared about who got the credit. She didn’t need to see her picture in the papers. She understood that the movement gathered strength from the bottom up, those unheralded men and women who don’t always make it into the history books but who steadily insisted on their dignity, on their manhood and womanhood. (Applause.) She wasn’t interested in credit. What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice. The cause of equality. The cause of opportunity. Freedom’s cause.
And that willingness to subsume herself, that humility and that grace, is why we honor Dr. Dorothy Height. As it is written in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” I don’t think the author of the Gospel would mind me rephrasing: “whoever humbles herself will be exalted.” (Applause.)
One of my favorite moments with Dr. Height — this was just a few months ago — we had decided to put up the Emancipation Proclamation in the Oval Office, and we invited some elders to share reflections of the movement. And she came and it was a inter-generational event, so we had young children there, as well as elders, and the elders were asked to share stories. And she talked about attending a dinner in the 1940s at the home of Dr. Benjamin Mays, then president of Morehouse College. And seated at the table that evening was a 15-year-old student, “a gifted child,” as she described him, filled with a sense of purpose, who was trying to decide whether to enter medicine, or law, or the ministry.
And many years later, after that gifted child had become a gifted preacher — I’m sure he had been told to be on his best behavior — after he led a bus boycott in Montgomery, and inspired a nation with his dreams, he delivered a sermon on what he called “the drum major instinct” — a sermon that said we all have the desire to be first, we all want to be at the front of the line.
The great test of a life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, is to harness that instinct; to redirect it towards advancing the greater good; toward changing a community and a country for the better; toward doing the Lord’s work.
I sometimes think Dr. King must have had Dorothy Height in mind when he gave that speech. For Dorothy Height met the test. Dorothy Height embodied that instinct. Dorothy Height was a drum major for justice. A drum major for equality. A drum major for freedom. A drum major for service. And the lesson she would want us to leave with today — a lesson she lived out each and every day — is that we can all be first in service. We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause. So let us live out that lesson. Let us honor her life by changing this country for the better as long as we are blessed to live. May God bless Dr. Dorothy Height and the union that she made more perfect. (Applause.)
I’ll close with three quotes from Dr. Height.
“If the time is not ripe, we have to ripen the time.”
“When you’re a black woman, you seldom get to do what you just want to do; you always do what you have to do.”
“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.”