by Talibah Chikwendu
WASHINGTON D.C.—“So long as God let’s me live,” said Dorothy Irene Height in one of several oral history archive videos presented by the National Visionary Leadership Project, “I will be on the firing line.”
She honored that commitment to herself and the causes of African-Americans, women and children until her final days, with her every thought, word and deed.
DR. DOROTHY HEIGHT
Truly people the world over lost an revered and tireless advocate April 20, when Dr. Height, 98, died after an extended hospitalization.
Dr. Height was born March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Va., to Fannie Burroughs Height (a nurse in a Black hospital) and James Edward Height (building contractor). Both widowers, each brought children to the marriage and had two children together, Dorothy and her sister, Anthanette. The family moved to Rankin, Pa. when she was four and stayed throughout her school years.
Early experiences—like joining her mother at the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs meetings, being denied access to swim in the pool at the Pittsburgh central YWCA branch and being turned away at Barnard College because she was the third Black to show up with an admittance letter (the school’s policy was to only admit two)—shaped her life’s direction.
“I learned that there is no advantage in bitterness, that I needed to go into action, which is something I have tried to follow since,” Dr. Height said, according to a 2004 Associated Press article.
Dr. Height’s Barnard acceptance letter got her immediate acceptance at New York University where, armed with her IBPO Elks scholarship she earned as winner of the organization’s National Oratorical Contest, she earned a bachelor of science degree in education and a master’s degree in psychology.
From college she immediately went to work helping others, starting in the New York City Department of Welfare. From there, she went to the YWCA of New York, Harlem Branch and, according to her memoir “Open Wide Freedom Gates” published in 2003, met Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune on the same day – a day that would empower the rest of her life’s work.
That day started an association with the national political scene that resulted in her providing consultation to presidents through the Clinton administration, including being called to the White House in the hours after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
It was also the day she began as a volunteer with the National Council of Negro Women, an organization she would run as president from 1957 – 1998, then serving as chair and president emerita until her death.
Along the way, the lifelong member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority served as the organization’s president from 1946 – 1957. “Mere words cannot express what Dr. Height has meant to the members of Delta Sigma Theta,” said National President Cynthia M. A. Butler-McIntyre. “Her life of dedication, sacrifice and service coupled with her leadership abilities has definitely played a major role in shaping strategies, policies and procedures that continue to sustain Delta Sigma Theta as a viable African-American women’s organization here in the United States and abroad.”
Height also served on the staff of the National Board of the YWCA from 1944-1977; was a visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India in the Delhi School of Social Work; wrote an Amsterdam News column called “A Woman’s Word;” was an organizer and vice president of the United Christian Youth Movement of North American and was appointed to the National Council for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research which published the Belmont Report, considered the bible of researcher’s ethical guidelines and was the sole female team member in the United Civil Rights Leadership.
Her work in the civil rights movement called on all her training and experience.
Dr. Height said one of her roles while working with Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney H. Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and John Lewis was to be a calming influence and to make sure that even in speaking up, she was a bridge to a solution and moving the process forward.
She added that despite the general downplay of her role in public, she was an equal and active member. “In terms of the working relationship,” she said on an oral history archive video, “I had great respect for those men. I felt that we were a group of peers. I felt at home in that group. I never felt I needed to fight as a woman.”
Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, said, “She was the only woman amongst the civil rights leaders. I know it was a tough place to be, but she held her own. And she made sure that they not only talked about civil rights, but they also talked about women’s rights.”
It was during this time she began an association with Ofield Dukes, noted Washington, D.C. public relations professional, then working for the vice president. Dukes said, “And there among these leaders —Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Nation Urban League, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC, James Farmer of CORS, John Lewis of SNCC, and civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin – was a lady of high respect, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. Above all, Dr. Height, in her cool, classy manner, was not intimidated by the cadre of Negro male leadership, at a time when women were not readily accepted in such a distinguished leadership role. She also had the respect of President Johnson and my boss, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.”
Dukes, a close friend of Height, calls her a “pioneer” and said she “provided a foundation for the subsequent leadership role of African-American women.”
Height never married and did not have any children, choosing instead to dedicate herself to making the world better for everyone.
“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 said, according to an NNPA report on the interview. “And that was at 14, and today, I’m still trying to make the promise that the 14th amendment makes under law a reality.”
That choice and her subsequent service did not go unrecognized. Along with 36 honorary doctorate degrees from institutions including Spelman College, Bennett College, Tuskegee University, Lincoln University, Morehouse College, Howard University, New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University and Meharry Medical College, she has received some of the highest honors awarded in this nation.
These include: Congressional Gold Medal (2003), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994), President’s Citizen’s Medal (1989), Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Freedom From Want Award (1993), John F. Kennedy Memorial Award, NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (1993), Congressional Black Caucus Decade of Service Award and the Barnard College Medal of Distinction (1980). She was also the Ladies Home Journal 1974 Woman of the
Year, was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame in 2004 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and received the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath of Achievement in 1964.
The many acknowledgements Dr. Height received shine a light on the tirelessness of her work that she sees as unfinished. “There’s a way in which the progress that was made [during the Civil Rights Movement], laid bare the progress that was needed, but was yet undone,” she said in an oral history archive video.
She lays the incomplete work at the feet of institutional racism, which she notes people refuse to admit exists and which has an unfortunate consequence. “The climate of righteous indignation that there was something wrong is not here now,” she said. “We have to take seriously that we really want to create a society of equality and freedom. We may compromise on strategy and tactic, but not the goal.”
Kweisi Mfume, executive director for the National Medical Association, said, “No matter how long the journey, cold the chill, or fierce the enemy, [Dr. Height] captured our will to dare to be different and our will to dare to make a difference. In many respects, it was [because of] what Dorothy Height did for us as apart of that larger movement that we’re able to stand today as a race of people confident, capable and prepared.”
Butler-McIntyre said, “Dr. Height was a visionary leader and inspired others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. The most important lesson that future generations of civil rights advocates can draw from her is the importance of working with people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies to achieve common goals.”
Dr. Height’s strength, clarity of purpose and spirit will be missed, but all people of good conscience, interested in a world of equality and justice, should take up her mantle and fight to eradicate poverty and racism.
(Gregory Dale contributed to this article.)