Dr. Dorothy Height was a lantern and role model for millions of women and a long-haul social change agent, blessed with uncommon commitment and talent. Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last seven decades as African Americans, women, and children pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity.
My organization, Children’s Defense Fund, was blessed to have her serve on our board for over 30 years. When she passed away on April 20 at 98, we all lost a treasure, a wise counselor, and a rock we could always lean against for support in tough times.
Even as a young girl, Height’s speaking skills stood out. She attended New York University with the help of a $1,000 scholarship from a national oratorical contest sponsored by the Elks (after being turned away by Barnard, which had already reached its quota of two “Negro” students for the year). On November 7, 1937, when she was the 25-year-old assistant director of the Harlem YWCA, she had the honor of escorting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting. There she met the organization’s founder and president, the legendary Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was immediately impressed with Height. She became her close friend and mentor, and in 1957, two years after Mrs. Bethune’s death, Height became NCNW’s president–a position she held until 1998, when she became its chair and president emerita.
During the civil rights movement, while so many women were playing vital roles that weren’t featured in the spotlight, Height was always up front with a seat at the table. She was often the only woman in the room with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rest of the “Big Six” group of male leaders as they planned many key strategies, and she was sitting on the stage–she should have been a speaker–at the historic 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.
Her organization developed a range of model national programs focused on the needs of African-American women and families, such as employment, child care, housing, hunger, health care, and youth development.
Height began the NCNW’s wonderful Black Family Reunion Celebrations 25 years ago, emphasizing the traditional values and strengths of black families at a time when too many people focused on the black family’s “breakdown.” Dr. Height always understood how African Americans’ needs connect to a larger global mission as well. 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. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman head of state, is just one of the many people who acknowledges owing a debt to Height’s leadership.
Through it all, Height’s intellect and strength remained as sharp as her signature sense of style. A musical based on her life was named “If This Hat Could Talk,” and anyone who knew Height and her trademark gorgeous hats understands just how that title was chosen. When Height was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal, then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton began her tribute by saying she had known Height for more than 30 years, since they first began working together on the Children’s Defense Fund’s board–and “just as in those long ago days, today once again, Dr. Height is the best-dressed woman in the entire room.”
We all needed Dorothy Height’s example of steadfastly doing what she had to do. Now we must do what we have to do to save all of our children.