WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Dr. Dorothy Height sits demurely in an office chair that seems more like a throne as it swallows her 97-year-old frame. Yet, her legacy is overwhelming.
The living icon of civil rights history still comes to work every day to her spacious office that sits on Washington’s famed Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women of which she is chair and president emerita.
|STILL AT THE FOREFRONT— Dorothy Height is featured in “Legacy: Black & White in America,” a 90-minute documentary by Richard Karz that examines the political rise of Barack Obama against the backdrop of changing racial attitudes in America.
And she has regular work hours, running the day-to-day operations and contacting the major fund-raisers of the four million-member organization that advocates on issues of African-American women. She’s been heading it since 1957.
In an interview with the NNPA News Service, the Rankin, Pa., native talks about how she cares for herself, issues of the day and her vision for the future.
“Well, while I haven’t taken the best care of myself, I haven’t abused myself either,” Height chuckles in her purple dress and matching church hat. “I think part of it is that I’ve always had a positive outlook and a sense of purpose in life. I was asthmatic as a child and, even at that time, they didn’t think that I could grow up to be 16. And here I am at 97. I think it is, I tried to keep active and study and move ahead. I think working with people has helped me.”
That has been a lot of work. Her office is like a shrine to everything she’s contributed to society. Like many offices of accomplished executives, her desk is an organized clutter, overrun with stacks of paper, books, a Washington Post, event souvenirs and other items mailed to her as gifts.
There is no computer, just a telephone—and awards everywhere. There’s a display case dedicated to all things Delta Sigma Theta, her sorority for which she once served as national president (1946-1957).
Among her major awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest citizen award in the nation. There is also the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom From Want Award, a congressional gold medal, and the coveted Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. She’s also been enshrined in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
She interprets it all with one word—purpose.
“I think that purpose means that you have some sense that God put you here to do something,” Height says. “And once you start on something you discover that that’s your life’s work. And life’s work is very different from having a job or a position or an office. It means that you have a sense of a purpose for your life. That’s been my approach. You see, I’ve been working on civil rights for so many decades. Therefore, I work on civil rights whether I’m the chair of an organization or not.”
The room is toasty. People must lean in close and talk loud over the hum of the heater. She won’t turn it off, not even for an interview. Height says it’s cold. Her executive assistant Christina Toney gives in.
“You’ll have to talk loudly,” she says.
Even without the hum of the heater, Height’s hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. But her mind is incredibly sharp for a woman three years shy of a century. She is passionate about the causes for which she works.
Often called “godmother of the women’s movement” height is currently focusing her attention on the rising incarceration of African-American females.
“I’m working hard on that,” she says.
While the general belief that Black males are having a difficult time is true, Height says people overlook the fact that girls are going into the criminal justice system at a rate higher than boys, with many going in for serious crimes and even leaving children behind.
“If you look at that and follow that pattern—those are the mothers of the future,” Height says. “And if you look at that pattern you cannot feel hope for the future.”
Height actually has more than one job, despite the fact that she is confined to a wheelchair. Her public service and volunteerism are like second or even third jobs.
She chairs the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based conference of civil rights organizations. Her duties at LCCR require her to attend board meetings. She also travels the country when her health permits. She does speaking engagements and events that require her presence, such as the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, where she was an honored guest.
Most people don’t see 97. And those that do have usually been retired for decades. Height says her activism keeps her inspired as she influences the continued fight for civil rights, a fight that she started years ago as a teenager. When she was in high school she entered the Elks’ oratorical contest on the Constitution of the United States.
“At 14, I’d become very much involved in understanding the Constitution. I chose to write my oration on the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution,” she recalls. “And that was at 14, and today, I’m still trying to make the promise that the 14th amendment makes under law a reality.”
More than 73 years later, Height is still developing new vision.
She wants to use the NCNW’s broad reach to organize women all across the country to help them take more of an active hand in mentoring younger girls.
“I owe a lot to my early childhood and youth the opportunity to be a part of organizations and groups,” she said. “We were working on something that was beneficial. I think that’s what is needed today.”
While the ascension of African-American women as leaders and trailblazers in all fields is booming, Height believes there is still a long way to go.
Of the Big Six civil rights leaders—A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and John Lewis—Height was the only peer not allowed to speak during the 1963 March on Washington—simply because she was a woman.
Today, Height is treated as civil rights royalty; receiving standing ovations and enthusiastic applause just about everywhere she goes.
She says that the present generation must continue the work of those that came before.
“I think that we simply have to keep going; realize that we have to keep working to open the doors that need to be opened,” she said. “Today, one of our problems as a people is that so many of the present generation go through the open doors but they don’t know how they got opened. We have to help this generation understand how those doors got opened and why they cannot rest until they’ve got them fully opened.”
She explains, “I think today, we have a generation that has to learn how to tackle the issues of the day and do it in such a fashion that it builds more sense of community and strength. We build on our history and try to make tomorrow a better day for our children, and not simply think that one day it will happen. This is a society today based on technology and science and we have to be prepared for this day. That’s what is so great about Barack Obama. He was prepared for this day and he’s showing it every day.”
But with all the preparation, her life’s work is steeped in the fact that race is still a factor in curtailing individual progress. Height was good friends with her late Civil Rights colleague, Dr. Martin Luther King. She’d known him since he was 15 years old. King’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech probably wouldn’t have had happened if it wasn’t for Height stepping in. Because of time concerns, the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington didn’t want to give the minister the time he needed to say the speech. Every speaker was evenly allotted seven minutes to speak. Height made the case that King should speak last so that he could speak longer. It worked out. She’s built a good relationship with another great orator—our 44th president, Barack Obama.
Height struggles to compare Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, with the country’s first Black president. King was fighting for the country, specifically pertaining to the civil rights of African-Americans and later the poor. On the other hand, Obama as president is a man who must articulate a vision for the nation as a whole.
“I think in that respect, both of them were visionaries,” Height says. “I think Dr. King was a good messenger, a good inspiration and a good leader in the sense of helping us all understand that we are more than we think we are and that we are all a part of a world. I think Obama is more like the practitioner who comes along and sees how to get some of that vision realized in terms of the political arena and in the day-by-day lives of people. Dr. King was a drum major for justice. I see Obama trying to turn that justice into a reality in the lives of people.”