American social activist Dorothy Height (born 1912) was an advocate of women's rights and civil rights. She shared the platform with the Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. The recipient of more than 50 awards from local, state, and national organizations, Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1994.
Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912. She was the daughter of James Edward Height, a building contractor, and Fannie Burroughs Height, a nurse. When Dorothy Height was very young, the family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh, where she attended integrated schools. Although she taught Bible stories to white children at her church, she was hurt at the age of nine when her best friend, a white girl, told her that she could not play with her any longer because Height was black.
As a high school student, Height made a speech about slavery amendments to the U.S. Constitution that won her a scholarship to the college of her choice. Although she was accepted at Barnard College in New York City, when she showed up to enroll there, she was told the college's quota for blacks had been filled. Instead, she enrolled in New York University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in social sciences and a master's degree in educational psychology.
As a young woman, Height made time to join church-sponsored and civic groups. She continued her voluntary service in these organizations even after she graduated from New York University in 1932.
Following Height's graduation, she became a welfare caseworker. As an employee of the New York Welfare Department, Height helped the city deal with the 1935 Harlem riots. She emerged as one of the leaders in the National Youth Movement during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal years.
Height also volunteered in Christian activist groups. In 1937, she became an assistant director of the Harlem YWCA. She developed leadership training programs for volunteers and staff and programs promoting interracial and ecumenical education. Height worked with the national YWCA from 1944 until 1977. She founded the YWCA's Center for Racial Justice in 1965 and directed it for 12 years.
Height caught the attention of U.S. government leaders and human rights activists as a representative to international YWCA meetings. In 1966, she served on the council to the White House conference "To Fulfill These Rights." Height also worked with Delta Sigma Theta sorority, serving as its national president from 1946 to 1957. She never married.
In 1937, while escorting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting, Height met Mary McLeod Bethune, the NCNW's founder. Bethune asked Height to help in promoting the NCNW's agenda, which included pursuit of full and equal employment and educational opportunities for women. Height later said she learned "the value of collaboration and of building political coalitions" in NCNW.
Height assumed leadership of the NCNW in 1957 and led the organization for 41 years until she became president emerita in 1998. By then, the National Council of Negro Women had become a federation of 250 community organizations. During Height's tenure, she fought for the rights of black women and sought ways to strengthen black families. Under Height, the organization developed national and community programs aimed at combating problems such as teenage pregnancy and poor nutrition in rural communities. In 1975, Height started the only African American private voluntary organization working in Africa, building on the earlier achievements of NCNW's programs in other parts of the world.
In 2002, in honor of Height's ninetieth birthday, a gathering of friends that included TV star Oprah Winfrey, boxing promoter Don King, author Maya Angelou, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry pledged $5 million to pay off the mortgage of the NCNW building on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. Height had been struggling for years to retire the debt.
Height, who was never an employee of NCNW, remained a strong advocate of volunteer work throughout her career. She said that people should realize that they can do more by working together than they can on their own.
Civil Rights Activist
While working with the NCNW, Height also worked for civil rights. In 1936 in New York, she participated in a protest against lynchings. She advocated an end to segregation in the military, a fairer legal system, and an end to racial restrictions on access to public transportation. During the 1950s, she worked on voter registration drives in the South.
By the 1960s, Height was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. She worked closely with the movement's major leaders, including King, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and A. Philip Randolph, and she participated in nearly all of the major civil and human rights events of the era.
In 1964, Height initiated the NCNW's "Wednesdays in Mississippi" program, in which women activists from the North flew south to spend Wednesdays in small towns, meeting with black women. One such meeting, held in a church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi , was nearly the scene of tragedy after someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the church window. Fortunately, the bomb did not ignite.
During Height's years as a civil rights activist, she never acquired a reputation as a radical or militant. Height received little attention for her work, perhaps because the movement was dominated by men. But Height told People in 1998, "If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don't get much work done." James Farmer, a former leader of the Congress for Racial Equality, credited Height with bringing the women's movement into the civil rights struggle.
Following major civil rights victories in the 1960s, Height supported initiatives aimed at eliminating poverty among southern blacks, such as home ownership programs and child care centers. There was even a program aimed at giving poor families a pig. As Height explained to People in 1998, "I thought if they had a pig in their backyard, no one could push them around."
In the 1980s and 1990s, the NCNW under Height's direction took on AIDS education and put in place a program to celebrate traditional African American values. In 1986, Height inaugurated the Black Family Reunion Celebration to reinforce the traditional strengths and values of the African American family. In the late 1990s, Height championed the confirmation of Alexis Herman, the first black woman to head the U.S. Department of Labor.
In 2001, Height told Black Issues in Higher Education that sit-ins and protest marches had been replaced by lobbying for legislation. Instead of desegregation and voting rights, the issues had become economic opportunity, educational equality, and an end to racial profiling. If Height had any regrets, one was that the righteous indignation that had spurred the civil rights movement was lacking in the new century. She asked where the country would be if the "vigor placed in fighting slavery and in the women's movement had kept pace."
Height was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. She received more than 20 honorary degrees, including degrees from Harvard and Princeton Universities. In 1998, she told People, "I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom.... I want to be remembered as one who tried."