Custom Search

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dorothy Irene Height: Civil Rights Queen & Bold Trail Blazer Dead @ 98

Dorothy Irene Height unlike many of today's soft, weak-kneed so-called Civil Rights "Leaders", was a Bold Sister Sojourner who wasn't afraid to speak up for her race even in the face of dominant White America.

Thanks so much Dorothy for demonstrating Courage in the face of Adversity and for Opening doors. God Bless.

I trust our nation will NEVER forget you.


Dorothy Irene Height, Quiet Civil Rights Wonder Woman Dies At 98

Dorothy Height, the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement and a participant in historic marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, died Tuesday. She was 98.

Height, whose activism on behalf of women and minorities dated to the New Deal, led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. She continued actively speaking out into her 90s, often getting rousing ovations at events around Washington, where she was immediately recognized by the bright, colorful hats she almost always wore.

She died at Howard University Hospital, where she had been in serious condition for weeks.

In a statement, President Barack Obama called her "the godmother of the Civil Rights movement" and a hero to Americans.

"Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality ... and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way," Obama said.

It was the second death of a major civil rights figure in less than a week. Benjamin L. Hooks, the former longtime head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, died Thursday in Memphis at 85.

Stop the Lynching

As a teenager, Height marched in New York's Times Square shouting, "Stop the lynching." In the 1950s and 1960s, she was the leading woman helping King and other activists orchestrate the civil rights movement, often reminding the men heading the movement not to under-estimate their women counterparts.

One of Height's sayings was, "If the time is not ripe, we have to ripen the time." She liked to quote 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said that the three effective ways to fight for justice are to "agitate, agitate, agitate."

Height was on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial, sitting only a few feet from King, when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

"He spoke longer than he was supposed to speak," Height recalled in a 1997 Associated Press interview. But after he was done, it was clear King's speech would echo for generations, she said, "because it gripped everybody."

She lamented that the feeling of unity created by the 1963 march had faded, and that the civil rights movement of the 1990s was on the defensive and many black families were still not economically secure.

"We have come a long way, but too many people are not better off," she said. "This is my life's work. It is NOT a job."

When Obama won the presidential election in November 2008, Height told Washington TV station WTTG that she was overwhelmed with emotion.

"People ask me, did I ever dream it would happen, and I said, 'If you didn't have the dream, you couldn't have worked on it," she said.

An Icon

Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957 and held the post until 1997, when she was 85. She remained chairman of the group.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 from President Bill Clinton.

To celebrate Height's 90th birthday in March 2002, friends and supporters raised $5 million to enable her organization to pay off the mortgage on its Washington headquarters. The donors included Oprah Winfrey and Don King.

Height was born in Richmond, Va., and the family moved to the Pittsburgh area when she was four. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University and did postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work. (She had been turned away by Barnard College because it already had its quota of two Black women.)

In 1937, while she was working at the Harlem YWCA, Height met famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to speak at a meeting of Bethune's organization. Height eventually rose to leadership roles in both the council and the YWCA.

The late activist C. DeLores Tucker once called Height an icon to all African-American women.

"I call Rosa Parks the Mother of the Civil Rights movement," Tucker said in 1997. "Dorothy Height is the Queen."

Civil Rights Matriarch Fought Racism With Dignity

The first time I met Dorothy Height, she seemed out of place.

She was wearing an obviously expensive pantsuit, sporting a wide-brim church hat and zipping around the Mall on a golf cart.

It was 1986, the first year of the National Black Family Reunion that Height had boldly pushed for. Even though racial diversity was in full bloom, Height believed that African American families needed to celebrate themselves in a big way.

By then, Height was already a civil rights icon, revered as a national treasure. I was new to Washington. As a freelance broadcast journalist, I needed a sound bite to get paid. Height stood in front of my little microphone and gave much more.

Of course I knew her, had seen her on television, but as I listened to Height her passion for social justice was overwhelming. Since then, I have interviewed her dozens of times. She was always available and accessible to the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary. And she always seemed to say the right thing.

Height began her career with another civil rights leader, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and worked with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama. She always mixed the social with the political, closing out the annual family reunion with a gospel concert and a traditional benediction.

More than a half-million people have attended the National Black Family Reunions since they began in 1986. Along the way, she reminded everyone that the event was not just about money. She forced vendors to keep the food prices low and kept the focus on health care and education.

In the summer of 1991, my wife and I attended the annual summer gathering with my mother-in-law and our new baby Aria. My wife, Taunya Harris, had never been to the reunion and wanted to see singer Jermaine Jackson. But it was Dorothy Height who stole the show. "I will never forget. Dr. Height came out on stage dressed in this blue outfit," she said.

Height knew how to bring people together. When comedian Bill Cosby offered a scorching critique of black America during the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case, which declared separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional, many blacks were angry. But Height said that Cosby was right because "the promises of Brown have yet to be fulfilled."

Former secretary of labor Alexis Herman, who has been leading the day-to-day operations of the National Council of Negro Women, said when she thinks of Height's legacy, she thinks of one word: Service.

"She has lived her whole life serving the people," Herman said. "Hers was a life of service and giving back.

"She not only expected us to keep going, she instructed us to keep going," she added. "She would ball that fist up and say that the National Council of Negro Women wasn't about one or two persons. She balled her fist to say that you can strike a mighty blow when you make a fist and work together."

Before coming to the NCNW, Height served as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1947 to 1956. E. Faye Williams, a lawyer and president of the National Congress of Black Women, said she met Height at a Delta convention when Williams was only 17.

"Dr. Height has been a mentor and a role model for so many of us who work in the service to our country," Williams said. "She leaves impossible shoes for us to fill. She was involved in organizational leadership when it was not always popular for women to be leaders."

In 1995, NCNW became the only historic black organization on Pennsylvania Avenue, in close proximity to the Capitol. A few years later, Oprah Winfrey paid off the mortgage. Before her death, Height said one of the proudest moments came when the organization hosted an inaugural viewing party for the first African American president.

"Having worked hard for civil rights and opportunities, I was excited," she said. "The fact that we won the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated legal segregation, made the country better not just for black people, but for white people, too."

Height fought racism with dignity. On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009, the last black family reunion Height attended, she parked her wheelchair on the main stage as gospel artist CeCe Winans performed. My camera was rolling.

"We open with a prayer breakfast, we close with a gospel concert, because we know that with all we have been through we have not come this far alone," Height said. "We do not like to hear the black family always described as a problem. Our children were a problem, our men were a problem, our women were a problem. We know we have problems, but we are not a problem people!"

View Larger Map

Sources: MSNBC, Washington Post,, Google Maps

No comments: