For more than a half-century, women and people of color have had a fighter for human rights, a leader for equality and a crusader for a better world.
You can find a picture of this warrior in the National Women’s Hall of Fame tucked among the likes of Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth.
Dorothy Irene Height has dedicated her life to education and social activism. She has encouraged political figures such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower and President Lyndon B. Johnson to create legislation and promote acts that benefited women and African Americans. And she has had the ear of every president since then.
At 98, the civil and human rights activist still works for a better tomorrow.
“We advanced in so many ways, but at the same time the poorest seem to be poorer, and the poverty among us seems to be entrenched,” Height said. “However, I am always an optimist, because I have an abiding faith. I believe that somehow the right will prevail. We have to keep working. Justice is not impossible. We can achieve it.”
Height does much of her work through the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW) as chair and president emerita. She also chairs the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the largest civil rights organization in the nation.
With the advancements of her people, Height revels in how far African Americans have come.
“In my lifetime, I have witnessed the evolution of desegregation, the spread of civil rights and the rise of possibilities for people regardless of race and sex,” Height said in a recent statement.
“I have also recently witnessed the passage of our health-care bill, something people of all different races and genders can applaud.” Currently in serious but stable condition at Howard University Hospital in Washington, Height knows the importance of this new legislation firsthand.
“We remain very optimistic in regards to her recovery,” said Height’s confidante, Alexis M. Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor. “She’s such a fighter. She continues to amaze all of us. She continues to hang in there.”
A Gifted Student and Speaker
Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Va., Height was a gifted student, winning a $1,000 scholarship after excelling in a national oratorical contest on the U.S. Constitution. Her skills awarded her entry into Barnard College, but upon arrival, Height was denied entrance into the institution. Barnard had a two African Americans-per-academic year limit, and Height would have surpassed the quota.
Instead, Height earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years from New York University in educational psychology. Later, she continued her education with post-graduate work at the New York School of Social Work and Columbia University, whose educational system includes Barnard and three other undergraduate schools. Height now has 36 honorary doctorates from institutions such as Howard University, Harvard University, Spelman College, Bennett College, Princeton University and Columbia.
Height began her life of public service as a New York City Welfare Department caseworker. Leading the Christian Youth Movement of North America during the New Deal era, Height worked tirelessly to prevent lynching, desegregate schools and the armed forces, reform the criminal justice system, appoint more African-American women to government positions and afford free access to public accommodations.
She served as vice president of the body and was chosen as one of 10 American youths to attend the World Conference on Life and Work of Churches in Oxford, England, and a YWCA representative at the World Conference of Christian Youth in Amsterdam, Holland.
The young Height’s next trip was to Hyde Park, N.Y., where she and nine other American youth spent the weekend in the home of Eleanor Roosevelt to plan the World Youth Conference to be held at Vassar College.
Height continued her life of service and her quest to improve the gender and racial gap in the nation into adulthood.
Joining Forces With Mary McLeod Bethune
While serving as assistant executive director of the YWCA in Harlem, Height caught Mary McLeod Bethune’s eye as the young woman escorted Eleanor Roosevelt into a National Council for Negro Women meeting.
Bethune, NCNW founder and then president, wanted Height to volunteer with the organization and join forces in demanding equitable education, employment and pay.
Joining NCNW in 1937, Height began dedicating her time and efforts to helping improve equality among women and African Americans.
Drawing inspiration from Bethune, Height served as NCNW president for more than four decades from 1957 to 1998 eventually becoming chair and president emerita.
To counter claims of the “vanishing black family,” Height created the Black Family Reunion Celebration, which has offered a blend of information and entertainment nationwide for 25 years.
She also was an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. where she served at president from 1946 to 1957. In that capacity, she worked with the sorority to establish leadership and educational programs.
Between NCNW, Delta Sigma Theta and YWCA, Height still managed to find time to serve as a consultant on African affairs to the Secretary of State and a voice for the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped. She was also a member of the President’s Committee on the Status of Women and organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which opened dialogue between black and white, southern and northern women in the 1960s.
Internationally, Height taught as a visiting professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Delhi in India and was engaged in NCNW assignments in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America.
“She has always said her life is a life characterized by service,” Herman said. “She is the ultimate statement of what it means to be a public servant. She’s given back. She’s always given herself to worthy causes. Always.”
A Member of the “Big Seven”
Present and engaged in virtually every major civil rights event, Height worked alongside such leaders as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Whitney Young, National Urban League leader.
These men were a part of the “Big Six,” which also included James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
This group was essential and highly visible during the Civil Rights Movement, and some historians later expanded its title to the “Big Seven” to include Height.
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 in a recent interview.
Height was not allowed to speak during the 1963 March on Washington because of her gender.
“I was seated on the platform a little more than an arm’s length from where Dr. King spoke,” Height wrote. “As I looked out at that huge audience on the Washington Mall, I found it inspiring almost beyond words.”
The only woman before a microphone was Mahalia Jackson, who sang the national anthem. “That moment was vital to awakening the women’s movement,” Height explained. “Mr. Rustin’s stance showed us that men honestly didn’t see their position as patriarchal or patronizing. They were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!”
It was Randolph who introduced Height and Herman nearly 40 years ago. He told Herman that she needed a woman with a “strong hand” as a mentor.
“We met for the first time over fried chicken at Paschal’s Restaurant,” a historic Atlanta restaurant many civil rights activists used as a meeting point, Herman said.
Always working to uplift her race and gender, Height was among a coalition of people and organizations who worked to get Herman confirmed as the 23rd Secretary of Labor during President Clinton’s initial term.
“I have always believed that I have been richly blessed to have Dr. Dorothy Height in my life,” Herman said.
Height has also been a mentor to Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women and honorary co-chair of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
“I love, adore and respect Dr. Height so very much, both because of the way she has sowed into our people,” Malveaux said, “and because of the ways she has sowed into me.”
An Asset to Humankind
Honored among dignitaries and figures like President Barack Obama, Height is recognized as an undeniable asset to humankind.
Because of her efforts, she was awarded the Citizens Medal Award for distinguished service by President Ronald Reagan in 1989, the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1993, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2004.
“Dr. Height is a civil rights icon whose tireless effort on behalf of others exemplifies the social work commitment to social justice and advocacy,” said Dr. Elizabeth Clark, executive director of National Association of Social Workers, an organization that awarded Height a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Howard University section of NCNW established the Height of Black Womanhood, an annual conference named after Height that offers workshops and advice to empower women. Yvonette Broomes, recording secretary at Howard from 2007 to 2008, looks up to Height. Broomes, 23, said she and her fellow board members visited Height regularly and grew close.
“Her strength, history and background are wonderful, and she inspires me,” Broomes said. “For her age, to have that drive and motivation to get up and go to work and still carry out her duties is just amazing.”
Monique Thompson, a senior pre-physical therapy major at Howard, has been involved with NCNW since August 2006 as chaplain and second vice president. She has met Height on several occasions.
“Dr. Height made sure to put the black family at the forefront and always made sure that it was never portrayed in a negative light,” Thompson said. “Dr. Height was a pioneer! Her own woman. Her own boss. She knew how she wanted everything and there would be consequences if it wasn’t perfect and up to her standards and liking. Dr. Height is the epitome of a true superwoman.”
Height’s standards have also been apparent by the way in which she carries herself — from her diction to her dress. Throughout her life, Height has worn many hats, literally and figuratively, She typically wears a hat to match her outfit.
“She loves hats,” Herman said, laughing. “Every hat she wears, she could tell a story.” Although Height has an extensive hat collection, Herman added, she can still remember which hats are someone’s favorite color and which events she’s worn them to, whether it’s a speaking engagement or a meeting at the White House,
With her legacy of service, Height is a key figure in the annals of American history and the timeline of the Civil Rights Movement. She is the first person to be featured in iCareVillage’s “Wisdom of Elders Across America” video series, which was shot in mid-March for Women’s History Month just before her hospitalization and 98th birthday. Her oral history is part of the National Visionary Leadership Project, founded by Camille O. Cosby, Ed.D., and broadcast journalist Renee Poussaint in 2001.
“I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom,” Height said. “I want to be remembered as one who tried.”
Alexis K. Barnes is a correspondent for the Howard University News Service. Additional reporting by Nicole Austin, Brittany Epps, Phillip Lucas, Melissa Montgomery and Zaria Poem.