Dorothy Height was a leader of the US Civil Rights movement who for almost a century fought ceaselessly for the rights of Black Americans and women of all races in the US mostly without receiving any credit for it.
Before Dorothy became a historical icon in the US, she received discrimination, racism, and sexism before becoming an icon of the welfare of Black women in the US. She served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 4 decades and corresponded and collaborated with contemporaries who were pioneers of racial integration and equality like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. However, she had more of an impact on the future of Black American women as compared to them. Height was referred to as ‘the Godmother of the Civil Rights movement’ by former US President Barack Obama.
Dorothy Height was born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia. She moved to Pittsburgh when she was just five years old. She attended racially integrated schools which was not possible for many Black children in her era. Height first became interested in activism when she took part in several campaigns which protested against the racial practice of lynching of Black Americans.
Height was not able to secure admission in New York City’s Barnard College because of its policy of not accepting more than two Black students in a year. However, she ultimately graduated from New York University in 1933 with both a graduate and a post-graduate degree in educational psychology. Height also did post-graduate work at Columbia University.
After her graduation, Height worked for the New York City Welfare Department for some time but an unplanned meeting with Mary McLeod Bethune in 1937 changed her life. Height was invited to a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt at the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). It was being hosted at the local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Height later described the meeting in her memoirs as being the time when she finally became committed to the cause of activism for racial equality.
Striving for Black women’s reproductive rights
In her initial days at the National Council of Negro Women, Dorothy Height concentrated more on anti-lynching legislation. However, in 1957, Height was named the president of the council. And it was in this position, which she would hold for four decades, that her efforts branched into different areas. Under her leadership, the NCNW led efforts to register voters in the American Deep South. The organization also provided financial help to prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
However, despite her various contributions, Height was often removed from photographs to keep women away from the forefront of the Civil Rights movement and maybe make it more acceptable to those who were both racist and sexist.
Height admitted that though she had been instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, D. C, it was shocking for her to note that she as a woman was kept away from giving speeches as the male activists didn’t consider the input of the female activists to be as valuable as that of the male activists.
Height was however not deterred and continued her efforts to strive for equality for women of all races and many times served as an adviser to the US President Lyndon B. Johnson. But one of Ms. Height’s most important fights was fighting for Black women specifically.
In 1990, Height founded the African American Women for Reproductive Freedom movement. She had remarked famously that a Black woman may have the same problems as women of other races but couldn’t take the same things as the women of other races for granted.
The later life of Dorothy Height and her legacy
Even though she faced racism and sexism during her entire career as an activist, Dorothy Height continued her work in the Civil Rights movement in the US. Subsequently, in the 1980s, she was recognized for her work.
Dr. Height was awarded the Citizens Medal Award by US President Ronald Reagan in 1989. Following this, she was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. Oprah Winfrey and Don King started and led a fundraising campaign in her honor in 2002. The campaign raised more than 5 million dollars for building a new NCNW headquarters in Washington, D. C. which was named after her.
At the time, Dr. Height had said that though she didn’t want to work hard all her life, she would work for equality, justice, and the elimination of racism for the rest of her life. By the time she died, Dr. Height had been awarded almost 24 honorary degrees. Though she was never married or had any children, her legacy lives on to this day.
When Dr. Dorothy Height died on April 10, 2010, at the ripe old age of 98, then US President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at her funeral and summarized her contributions to the Civil Rights movement stating that Height was the drum major for justice, equality, freedom, and service by her work and inspired all Americans to be like her in their lives.