Dr. Dorothy Height
A woman of grace and was very passionate about equal rights of others. She remained active in the struggle up into her 90s, a point in life where most people would retire.
Dr. Dorothy Height: A National Treasure Passes On
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
Dr. Dorothy I. Height was a social activist who wore many hats–literally–and figuratively. She was so often identified by her flamboyant hats that a musical production was made chronicling her life called If This Hat Could Talk: the Untold Stories of Dr. Dorothy Height. She was a woman among men who walked with Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and a number of Civil Rights pioneers in the 20th Century, and was still walking “up to the finish line” with Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Marian Wright Edelman and today’s Civil Rights activists in the 21st century.
Dr. Height was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 24, 1912; her family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania where she attended high school. She was gifted with excellent oratorical skills and was awarded a scholarship to New York University, where she earned her master’s degree.
She met Bethune, the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1937 at a council meeting in Harlem, New York City (NYC). They immediately struck up a relationship–which would eventually last a lifetime, and beyond–and Height was eager to assist Bethune, as a volunteer, in advancing women’s rights. As a caseworker with NYC Welfare Department and an assistant director of the Harlem YWCA, Height was well positioned to lend her time and her talent to Bethune and NCNW. She fought for equal rights for African Americans in general and for women in particular, and was named president of NCNW in 1957, a position she held until 1997.
Her work as a civil rights activist and advocate began when she worked to prevent lynching (of Black men), to desegregate the armed forces, to reform the criminal justice system and to create free and equal access to public transportation and accommodations. She never accepted the “status quo” and did not retreat from the racist and sexist notions or actions of the times.
She began forging relationships among women during her travels and studies in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. She was convinced that making international connections among the women of the world would strengthen her world as a civil rights and social activist. Height worked closely with the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and in almost every civil and human rights activity in the 1960’s. She organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi” which brought Black and White women together to create a dialogue of understanding. She advised First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower on school desegregation, and President Lyndon B. Johnson on African American appointments in the federal government. She was instrumental in President Johnson appointing Robert C. Weaver as the first Black Secretary in a president’s administration
Height founded and organized the Black Family Reunion Celebration in 1986 to re-connect the historic strengths and traditional values of the Black Family. It was a multi-cultural event and a resounding success that it attracted about 11.5 million people in a nine-year period. One of her most important achievements, as president of NCNW, was the crusade for justice for Black women and working to strengthEN the Black Family. Height has developed several national and community-based programs with special emphasis on the involvement of young people. She established the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first ever devoted only to Black women’s history.
She has received numerous awards including the Springarn Award, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Award, the Camille Cosby World of Children Award, the Stellar Award, and 19 honorary doctorates. Height has also been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. From President Reagan, she received the Citizens Medal Award; from President Clinton, the Medal of Freedom; and from President George W. Bush, the Congressional Gold Medal.
In a letter to NCNW’s 52nd Convention in 2005, whose theme was ’70 years–Achievement and Challenge–Living the Legacy,’ Height wrote, “You are called to celebrate the achievements of women and women’s organizations in our country and around the world. Even as we applaud the progress, we face the reality of a long way to go.” The Uncommon Height Awards is another NCNW event annually schedule to raise funds for the Dorothy I Height Leadership Institute.
The quality of a person’s life is evaluated by the accolades and praises received on passing away. The following are Dr. Dorothy I. Height’s:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Dorothy Height–the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans. Ever since she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African American women, Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality. She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement–witnessing every march and milestone along the way. And even in the final weeks of her life–a time when anyone else would have enjoyed their well-earned rest–Dr. Height continued her fight to make our nation a more open and inclusive place for people of every race, gender, background and faith. Michelle and I offer our condolences to all those who knew and loved Dr. Height–and all those whose lives she touched.”
CONGRESSWOMAN MAXINE: “Today our country has lost a great leader, an effective and passionate advocate and an inspiring woman. I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Dorothy Height, my dear friend and a true national treasure. For 40 years she was the president of the National Council of Negro Women, and during that time she created the great Black family reunions that were held across this country that helped to unite communities, families and individuals, and give support to the concerted efforts to strengthen the African American family unit. Dr. Height made it clear she was an educator, no doubt because of her close friendship and working relationship with Mary McLeod Bethune, the famed educator and civil rights icon. Partly in Mary’s image and partly because of her own passion and perseverance, Dr. Height went on to be the key woman involved in the civil rights movement, marching in the streets of New York, standing with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial and being the only woman in attendance at the meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson that helped shape the civil rights bill. My thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Height’s family and friends, and to the countless people whose lives were impacted by this great woman.”
ASSEMBLY SPEAKER EMERITA KAREN BASS: “Dorothy Height exemplified a life of passion: a passionate commitment for equality for all humankind combined with a passionate crusade for justice for African American women and the strengthening of the African American family. She not only was a key participant in Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic civil rights marches of the sixties, but she was a witness to the movement as a whole. She took Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent civil activism and made it her own principle to live by and to instruct thousands of others. For her, greatness was defined not by what one accomplishes, but by the opposition one has ‘overcome to reach his goals.’ I had the honor of meeting her several times and her work had a direct influence on my life. Dorothy Height was a role model-her commitment to community service and her belief that how one serves a community is the way in which one grows inspired my commitment to serve.”
MAYOR VILLARAIGOSA: “My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Dr. Dorothy Height. As a founding matriarch of the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Height’s crusade for justice and equality spanned more than six decades. She worked with every U.S. President since Franklin Roosevelt, marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and advised and influenced countless organizations that strove for equality for all Americans. She was a truly extraordinary leader whose legacy will live on through the millions of lives she influenced and enhanced.”
DANNY J. BAKEWELL, SR., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel and chairman of the NNPA: Dr. Height was a giant of a Black woman; she walked tall, shined brightly and was always the tallest tree in the forest. Having known her and worked with her for many years are moments I will treasure for the rest of my life. She was truly a national treasure, irreplaceable. Rest in Peace, beautiful Black Queen!
CHARISSE BREMOND-WEAVER, president and CEO of the Brotherhood Crusade: “We’ve lost one of the greatest leaders of our time. Though she walked with king, queens and presidents, she never lost touch with the people in the community. She was a gem worthy of being placed on the highest shelf in the room.
BRENDA MARSH-MITCHELL: president of Mothers In Action: I remember the times when she came to Los Angeles, I was the only one she would let drive her and through that association, she mentored me and taught me like only she could have. We have lost a great soul, but she will always be remembered.
THE CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS FOUNDATION: The country has lost a leader, a pioneer and a role model. Dorothy Height’s vision of originating the Black Family Reunion epitomized her emphasis on unity and importance of family. Her leadership transcends time and will always be a symbol for girls and women of all generations. She defined grace and dignity,” said Rep. Donald M Payne, CBCF board chair. Dr. Height was blessed to have a long life that she spent trying to make the world a better place for those following behind her. She exemplified dignity, fortitude, intellect and pride–for African-American women, for those who sought justice and for the younger generation. “One of my fondest memories is of spending election night 2008 at Dr. Height’s building watching the election returns,” said Elsie L. Scott, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer for CBCF. “The young people were sitting at her feet listening to stories of how far this country has come. She was so excited at living to see this country elect an African-American president. As I left the building at close to midnight, she was still glued to the television, watching every bit of news on President Obama’s election. We shall miss her but rejoice in all that she was and all that she inspired the nation to become.”
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: “We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed.”
This is the quote inscribed on Dr. Dorothy Height’s Congressional Gold Medal, just one of the many dozens of awards Dr. Height received over her extraordinary life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The brilliant Dr. Height was a lantern and role model for millions of women and a long haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent. Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last seven decades as Blacks, women, and children pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity. To me she was a dearest friend, mentor, and role model, and the Children’s Defense Fund was blessed to have her serve on our board for over 30 years. When she passed away on April 20 at age 98, we all lost a treasure, a wise counselor, and a rock we could always lean against for support in tough times.
DR. ELIZABETH J. CLARK of the National Association of Social Workers: “Words cannot express our sorrow in learning about Dr. Height’s death this morning, says Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers. “She, like pioneer social workers Jane Addams and Frances Perkins, made lasting change in the lives of thousands, while shaping some of the most important social shifts in American history.”
Dr. Height was mentored by some of the most accomplished women of the Progressive Era, including Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. And she mentored many of the nation’s most recognizable female leaders today, including Former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, media mogul Oprah Winfrey and poet laureate and author Dr. Maya Angelou. Dr. Height also remains the longest serving president (1947-1957) of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an international public service organization.
ANNA BURGER, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Secretary-Treasurer: “For those of us who consider ourselves partners in the struggle for equal and civil rights, the passing of Dorothy Height is both cause for mourning and an important reminder of the lengths we still have to go. When Dorothy began marching in protests in the 1930s, women had barely been granted the right to vote, and the civil rights movement wasn’t yet a glimmer in our nation’s eyes. Today, because of Dr. Height’s tireless efforts, women have unprecedented opportunities to build better communities and lead in their workplaces.
WADE HENDERSON: “It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the passing of our chairperson, Dr. Dorothy I. Height. For the past seven decades, her work and her wisdom have enriched and ennobled the civil rights movement and our nation. Dr. Height has been an extraordinary leader, a gifted organizer, a trusted adviser, and a shrewd strategist from the days of the New Deal to these times of the Raw Deal for so many Americans. She was at every important meeting, participated in every historic struggle, and advised major national leaders from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Height for more than 20 years. Her wise counsel, political acumen, and pragmatic idealism were, quite simply, invaluable. She was active in the work of The Leadership Conference right up until it was just physically impossible for her to do so, most recently, serving as honorary co-chair of our campaign to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It is an honor and a blessing to have known her.”
NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE FUND: It always seemed that Dorothy Irene Height, who died today at 98, was present at the creation of black Americans’ twentieth-century struggle for freedom and equality. That was because within the living memory of most Americans Dr. Height was in fact at the center of that multi-faceted struggle that began with the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League a century ago and continues today. It has always seemed that she was a participant in the critical planning sessions, and then present on the front lines of the action, and then was part of the negotiating team at the follow-up parley. It has always seemed that, as head of the National Council of Negro Women, she was adding much-needed insights–and resources–to the male-dominated leadership structures of Black America and American society as a whole. It has always seemed as if Dorothy Height has been there whenever freedom’s struggle needed her.
MELANIE L. CAMPBELL, co-convener with Dr. Height of Black Women’s Roundtable:
“Today we mourn the passing of our beloved leader, teacher, mentor and guide, Dr. Dorothy I. Height. Dr. Height dedicated her life to civil rights, human rights and women’s rights in our nation and around the world. Dr. Height was a founding board member of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the Black Women’s Roundtable. I feel Blessed and honored to have been mentored by Dr. Height, working with her in recent years on the Black Women’s Roundtable with an intergenerational network of women to promote the empowerment of women and girls. Dr. Height taught us that we must be organized and stay focused on the work and that we are more powerful working together in unity and that ‘unity does not mean uniformity.’
EVELYN GIBSON LOWERY, founder of SCLC/W.O.M.E.N.: “Dr. Dorothy Irene Height was a founding matriarch of the civil rights movement and an outspoken advocate for gender equality. Dr. Height worked tirelessly until her last days advocating on behalf of women, African Americans and underprivileged people throughout the world. She was a shining example of womanhood and her courage, intelligence, and quick wit will be missed. Our prayers go out to her family and the NCNW family.”
BARBARA A. PERKINS, Executive Director Los Angeles CARES Mentoring Movement:
The moment Dr. Height entered my life at an event in Los Angeles in 1991, I felt the presence of powerful leadership and remarkable grace. I would join a long list of younger women she called to her and mentored along the way. Appointed within a year to join the National board of directors for the National Council of Negro Women, I usually sat right next to Mrs. Height as the assistant recording secretary of the board. Often, I had to be reminded that I was supposed to be writing rather than gazing at her and hanging onto every word she spoke. Eventually, it was recommended that I get a tape recorder, so that I could go back and capture (with some degree of accuracy) notes from the meetings. This was an incredible blessing and example of how black women are to be with one another, teaching and learning as we go.