Reaching New Heights

NCNW Founder Shares Wisdom With Honor Students

National Council of Negro Women leader Dorothy I. Height mused on leadership, purpose and preparation as she shared lessons on life and history with a dozen young women visiting her recently at the NCNW’s Washington headquarters.

The women are enrolled in the Annenberg Honors Program at the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University. The visit was part of the “Phenomenal Women’s Series” of their freshmen seminar, taught by Hazel Trice Edney, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) News Service and adjunct professor in Howard’s Department of Journalism.

Here are reflections from their visit on March 9, just before Height’s 98th birthday and hospitalization:

Be a Leader
As she talked about her life, her education and her passion for social work, Height also supplied the class with the many tips and skills she learned through her experiences. Her advice, such as “be part of something that you don’t lead,” signified the importance of true leadership. A lot of what Height discussed was how to be a leader through teamwork and a desire for change. Her advice to “never stay away from big jobs” showed that she has a can-do attitude regardless of the situation.

Think and Communicate With Purpose
She was 14 when she entered a speech contest and talked about the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. “Speeches are not about talking; they are about thinking,” she recalled a teacher telling her. “You have to know how to think.” Height said she is working on a book, “Living with Purpose.” She said she’d “found a purpose and I’m still working on it.”

How to Handle Rejection
“You need everything you have to handle what’s coming your way,” Height said, recalling how she was rejected by Barnard College after being awarded a scholarship. When she came to enroll, administrators said they didn’t know that she was black. In 1980, the college apologized and gave her a medal.

Being a Woman in a Man’s World
“Women on the quest for equality … can’t be wimpy or wishy washy,” said Height, who worked closely with the “Big Six,” made up of leading men in the Civil Rights Movement.

“I never liked to be the weak lady,” she explained. “I do my homework. I get my homework done so I don’t feel inferior or unprepared. They always gave me the highest respect.”

Never Underestimate Anyone
Height said she met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader was 15 at dinner with Benjamin Mays, then president of Morehouse College, and his wife. “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.”

Stand Out
“Twenty women gathered and wanted a woman speaker at the March on Washington,” Height said. “The only woman’s voice was Mahalia Jackson singing the national anthem.”

Women weren’t equally accepted as civil rights leaders at the time, Height said, so if they stood with the men, they were often cut out of photos. “I learned how to get in the middle of pictures,” she explained.

Other lessons she learned from working with men:
• “Unity does not mean uniformity.”
• “It is not self-serving. You are not there as Susie Q. You have a voice.”
• “Never fail to speak up.”
• “Lose your distance if you think your presence means something.”
• “We have to be there on whatever the subject is.”

Height’s Influences
The most influential people in Height’s life include her mother and Mary McLeod Bethune, her mentor and founder of the National Council of Negro Women. The inscription in her 2003 memoir, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” reads: “Dedicated to my loving mother, Fannie Burroughs Height, and her great expectations.”