Great Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights Leader
“We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed.”
This quote inscribed on Dr. Dorothy Height’s Congressional Gold Medal was just one of the many dozens of awards she received over her extraordinary life of 98 years, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A posthumous honor on February 1st from the U.S. Postal Service celebrated the beginning of Black History Month by dedicating the 40th stamp in its Black Heritage series with a beautiful new design featuring Dr. Height in her ever present beautiful hat. She was a brilliant indefatigable lantern and role model for millions of women of all colors but especially Black women, and a long haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent.
Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many transforming events of the last seven decades as Blacks and other people of color pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity. The new stamp is a fitting tribute to tireless activism whose example is so needed right now everywhere as a half-century of progress for those left behind is threatened with dismantlement.
Dorothy Height, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, transcended the limits the Jim Crow society of her childhood placed on a young Black girl. From an early age her speaking skills stood out, and she attended New York University in part with a $1,000 scholarship from a national oratorical contest (after being turned away by Barnard, which had already reached its quota of two Negro students for that year). She cited November 7, 1937 as the day that changed her life when she was the 25-year-old assistant director of the Harlem YWCA and was chosen to escort First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting where she met NCNW’s founder and president, the legendary Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was immediately impressed with her. She became Dorothy’s close friend and mentor, and in 1957, two years after Mrs. Bethune’s death, Dr. Height became NCNW’s president — a position she held until 1998 when she became Chair and President Emerita, a title she held until her death in 2010 at 98 years young.
During the Civil Rights Movement, while so many women were playing vital roles that weren’t featured in the spotlight, Dorothy Height was always up front with a seat at the table. She was often the only woman in the room with Dr. King and the rest of the “Big Six” group of male leaders as they planned many key strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. She sat on the stage — she should have been a speaker — at the historic 1963 March on Washington. She led the NCNW membership as active participants in the movement and reminded us that women were its backbone — unseen but strong and indispensable. A cornerstone of NCNW’s civil rights strategies was Wednesdays in Mississippi, which brought together prominent White and Black northern women to travel to Mississippi to develop relationships with Black and White southern women, educate themselves and each other, and create bridges of understanding between the North and South across racial and class lines. It’s a model of women’s partnership that resonates right now.
NCNW developed a range of model national programs focused on Black women’s and families’ needs. She always stayed focused on the ways African Americans’ needs connect to a larger national and global mission. She participated in conferences and leadership training sessions and on official delegations around the world, and from the White House to the United Nations, her expertise on civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights was always in demand. Through it all, Dr. Height’s intellect and wisdom remained sharp as did her signature sense of style. She always looked good! When Dr. Height was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal, then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton began her tribute by saying she had known Dr. Height for more than thirty years, when they began working together on the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s board — and “just as in those long ago days, today once again, Dr. Height is the best dressed woman in the entire room.” The new postage stamp pays fitting tribute to her legacy of beautiful hats as did a play “If This Hat Could Talk.”
But it’s Dr. Height’s substance that we need to study and remember today, especially her willingness to put her head down and keep working regardless of whether the winds were with her or against her. To me she was a dearest friend, mentor, and role model, and CDF was blessed to have her wisdom for over thirty years. In 1990, she co-convened with great historian Dr. John Hope Franklin and CDF a quiet but landmark meeting of 22 Black leaders at the beautiful Rockefeller Foundation conference center in Bellagio, Italy that launched the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) committed to Leave No Child Behind™, the incubator for community service models like the summer CDF Freedom Schools® program, Beat the Odds® youth leadership program, and the Harlem Children’s Zone. We honored her during her life with a weekend symposium at CDF-Haley Farm where we named a beautiful old cabin as the Bethune-Height House. After she was wheelchair-bound, she was still by our side rallying at the U.S. Capitol in support of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). When she passed away we lost a wise counselor, a rock and an “energizer bunny” we could always lean on for support in tough times.
While we were privileged to know her personally, everyone can learn from her servant leadership example and commitment to doing what she had to do. I hope this new stamp helps spur all of us on to protect the civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and human rights threatened today.