Dorothy Height died early this morning at age 98. The nation lost a great citizen and all freedom loving people lost a friend. When the civil rights movement in this nation began in the 1960’s, Dr. Height already had 30 years of experience working for fairness and equality among all people. As a child—a teenager—she marched against lynching in an environment in which she could have been lynched. Her passion for equal rights continued through 33 years of service on the national board of the YWCA and 40 years on the board of the National Council of Negro Women, the headquarters of which almost overlays the spot where slaves were once traded in the shadow of the United States Capitol.
As Congressman John Lewis has pointed out, Dr. Height spent much of her life dealing with intense male chauvinism in both the black and white communities. But she never was stopped by such discrimination. Indeed, she became an icon of liberation for both black and white women.
Though seldom mentioned in the headlines that described the civil rights movement in this nation, Dr. Height was involved in almost every step forward within that movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, respected, and counted on this woman. When he delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial,
Dorothy Height was the only woman on the platform beside the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
One of the advantages of my work in D.C. is the opportunity it provides to be close to history and the people who have made and are making history. On several occasions I have been at events where Dr. Height was present. Most recently, I saw her just outside the East Room of the White House prior to the president’s signing of hate crimes legislation. True to her reputation for beautiful clothes and a striking hat, she sat in her wheelchair smiling.
Every time I saw Dorothy Height, I made my way to her side simply to say “thank you” to her. That last time I saw her was no exception. As I stood beside her that day, someone snapped a picture. But, I don’t know who did it. I would love to have that picture standing by this giant shero who worked to see that all people are free and toward the end of her life acknowledged that the work of civil rights is not over. However, I have the memory that cannot get lost.
This morning NPR’s Morning Edition ended its coverage of Dorothy Height’s death with words directed to young people but loaded with wisdom for all of us. She stressed the importance of young people getting organized to serve others observing that when people work for something bigger than themselves, there is no way they can help but grow.
“Lift every voice and sing . . . .”