On Her Birthday, We Celebrate the Life of Dorothy Height

Dorothy Irene Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010)

dorothy_height  dorothy_height_older

Today marks the birthday of Dorothy Height, the unsung hero of the Civil Rights and feminist movements who helped Dr. Martin Luther King organize the March on Washington and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

She has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest honors awarded to an American civilian. She also stood on as Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, and Obama called her the “godmother of the civil rights movement” after her death in 2010.

Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997. She also served as National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1946 to 1957 and remained active with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority throughout her life. While there she developed leadership training programs and interracial and ecumenical education programs.

While Height made major contributions to both the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s, she was often marginalized in each movement because of her race and gender. She helped organize Dr. King’s March on Washington, yet was not asked to speak along with the male civil rights leaders. She was accepted to Barnard College in 1929, but was not able to enroll because she was black. She went to New York University instead, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in psychology.

Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, Dorothy Height spent her life fighting for civil rights and women’s rights. The daughter of a building contractor and a nurse, Height moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, in her youth. There, she attended racially integrated schools.

In high school, Height showed great talent as an orator. She also became socially and politically active, participating in anti-lynching campaigns. Height’s skills as a speaker took her all the way to a national oratory competition. Winning the event, she was awarded a college scholarship.

Height had applied to and been accepted to Barnard College in New York, but as the start of school neared, the college changed its mind about her admittance, telling Height that they had already met their quota for black students. Undeterred, she applied to New York University, where she would earn two degrees: a bachelor’s degree in education in 1930 and a master’s degree in psychology in 1932. Another of Height’s major accomplishments at the YWCA was directing the integration of all of its centers in 1946. She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977. In 1957, Height became the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Through the center and the council, she became one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer—sometimes called the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement—on different campaigns and initiatives.

height_and_reagan           height_and_bush
Dr Height in 1974, and with President Ronald    Dr Height shares a joke with George W Bush before he
Reagan during a reception at the White House    presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal in
in 1983                                                                             2004

Height received many honors for her contributions to society. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She stepped down from the presidency of the NCNW in the late 1990s, but remained the organization’s chair of the board until her death in 2010. In 2002, Height turned her 90th birthday celebration into a fundraiser for the NCNW; Oprah Winfrey and Don King were among the celebrities who contributed to the event.

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Dr Dorothy Height, left, in one of her characteristically colorful outfits, with her comrade-at-arms Rosa Parks

In 2004, President George W. Bush gave Height the Congressional Gold Medal. She later befriended the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, who called her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” according to The New York Times. Height died in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2010.

Obama_at_dorothy_heights_funeralPresident Barack Obama wipes away tears during the funeral for the ‘Godmother’ of the civil rights movement Dorothy Height in Washington

Former first lady Hillary Clinton was among the many who mourned the passing of the famed champion for equality and justice. Clinton told the Washington Post that Height “understood that women’s rights and civil rights are indivisible. She stood up for the rights of women every chance she had.”


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