NNPA Editor-in-Chief Hazel Trice Edney and Freshmen Annenberg honor students from Howard University, interviewed Dr. Dorothy Height March 9 at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. Pictured with her, from left to right, are Hazel Trice Edney, Emily Kelly, Brittany Epps, Janae’ Martin, Milan Kunin, Letese’ Clark, Sydney Brunson, Oni Entzminger-Hinton, Christina Downs, Destinee Swindell, Noelle Jones, Chanice Brown, Kylee Coney and Eilah Brown.
In Her Own Words: Dr. Dorothy Height’s Final Interview With the Black Press of America
WASHINGTON (NNPA)–Christine Tony, the faithful assistant of Dr. Dorothy I. Height, briefed the 13 young ladies before the entry of the civil rights icon.
“My 97-year-old is feeling 97 today,” said the smiling Tony, March 9, only nine days before Dr. Height was admitted into the Howard University Hospital and two weeks before her 98th birthday. Tony said that Dr. Height had canceled all of her other appointments that day, but this 4 o’clock meeting had slipped her mind. Therefore, she decided to go ahead and meet with the freshman students from the Howard University School of Communications Annenberg Honors Program and their professor, Hazel Trice Edney, editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service.
Despite the fact that she was not feeling well, once the Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement was rolled into the conference room of the National Council of Negro Women, the eager faces and pointed questions seemed to give her new energy. She was thorough, animated and her usual sharp-minded self. Beaming with passion as she sat at the oak conference table where the Black Leadership Forum regularly meets, she even softly slapped the table when making her points on topics that piqued her interest.
This writer and the communications students meticulously documented the historic moment in their class journals–not knowing that it would be the last.
“Sitting in the same room with Dr. Height was, in and of itself, an awesome experience,” writes Janae’ Martin. “I felt like she had so much wisdom, and it flowed from her mind naturally, smoothly like it only can from a person who has applied that wisdom continuously throughout her life.”
The following are more reflections from the students on the anecdotes and deep wisdom imparted during Dr. Height’s final interview with the Black Press of America.
Wearing a purple suit and her matching trademark hat, Dr. Height was especially passionate about making sure the ladies in the class were empowered with the self-esteem they would need to withstand pressures in a society still largely run by male leadership. She shared heavily from her experience of having served amidst male-dominated civil rights leadership, which included her peers, the famous and highly respected “big six” of the civil rights movement–A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and now U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
But, there were light moments.
“I learned how to get in the middle of pictures,” she said with a savvy smile as she recalled how editors would often cut her off the ends of pictures that she took with the male leadership. “It will always be there,” she said somberly of the male ego, drawing chuckles from around the room.
Yet, she spoke fondly, even reverently, of the men and women that she served alongside. She noted that they always respected her mind though the social order of the day was to exclude women’s public participation in some activities.
Chanice Brown outlined the still relevant advice that Dr. Height gave on how to move to the front lines even in an oppressive situation:
“It is not self-serving. You are not there as Susie Q. You have a voice. I never failed to speak up,” Brown quoted Dr. Height in her journal. “Lose your distance if you think your presence means something. We have to be there on whatever the subject is.”
On how to gain respect, even from those who are oppressing you, Dr. Height continued, “I never liked to be the weak lady. I do my homework. I get my homework done so I don’t feel inferior or unprepared … Women on the quest for equality can’t be wimpy or wishy washy.”
An example of the struggle for Black women during the civil rights movement was what happened during the planning of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Dr. Height told how 20 women gathered and wanted a woman speaker at the March on Washington. But, the men did not allow it.
“They claimed that it was not a women rights issue, it was a civil rights issue,” Janae’ Martin wrote. “For this reason, Dorothy and the women in the quest of equality made sure that they got a seat on the stage during the event. ‘Know when and how to make your cause clear,” she advised us. ‘Unity does not mean uniformity’.”
Height recalled the ceremony that day. She was the only peer of what has since been dubbed the “big six” who was not allowed to speak at the march.
“The only woman’s voice was Mahalia Jackson singing the National Anthem,” she told the attentive students.
Nevertheless, she embraced her calling to the fight and the warriors that she worked alongside, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I met Dr. King when he was 15 at dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Mays [Benjamin Mays, then president of Morehouse College] … Dr. King was trying to figure out what he wanted to become. Law… Divinity… He had analyzed the fields. You never know when you’re talking to people who they are going to become,” Dr. Height recalled.
This is one of the reasons that she said her most important social skill was the ability to listen to people from all walks of life with genuine interest.
“Therefore, she was able to learn from both the ‘powerful and the poor’,” recalls Janae’ Martin in her journal. “She told us to control our biases, even for people who give you a hard time. Also, she never shied away from a big job or a big task. Mostly, she said her biggest advantage was just being comfortable with herself, who she is, and her abilities.”
Those big jobs weren’t always glamorous and out front. Oni Hinton recalls Dr. Heights’ pointed advice to “‘be a part of something that you don’t lead’,” she wrote in her journal. “She said that signified the importance of true leadership. A lot of what Dr. Height discussed was how to be a leader through teamwork and a desire for change.”
Despite the oppression experienced by sexism, Dr. Height kept her eyes on the dominant enemies of Black people–racism and White supremacy.
She recalled how Barnard College did not know she was Black when they accepted her after she won a full scholarship as a prize for first place in an oratory contest in which she spoke on the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U. S. Constitution. Learning her race, they rejected her entry, saying they had already filled their quota of two African-American students.
She eventually earned a masters degree in educational psychology from New York University. Barnard apologized years later with the college’s highest distinction, an honorary degree. Yet, she said she was never bitter.
“No matter what happens, don’t get bitter because you weaken yourself,” recalled Brittany Epps. “You need everything you have to deal with all the problems you may face.”
Instead, her purpose in life became those amendments on racial equality.
Dr. Height found her purpose through that oratory contest that she won at 14. From it, she also imparted a valuable lesson on March 9 this year: “Making a speech is not about talking, it’s about thinking,” quoted Eilah Brown.
These and other lessons from the life of this revered civil rights warrior will remain well-documented in her numerous interviews and her two books “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” and “Living With a Purpose”.
Kylee Coney quoted her greatest lesson for life: “The greatest accomplishment is that I found a purpose. And I’m still working on it.”