As we come to the end of Black History Month and move into Women’s History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight a Black woman. Many say she was one of the most influential women of the modern civil rights and women’s rights movement.
I am talking about Dorothy Irene Height.
For almost half a century, Dorothy Height gave leadership to the struggle for a just society. She was passionately committed to the human rights of all people.
Dorothy Height was born March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia. With the promise that living in the North would bring better opportunities, her family moved to Pennsylvania where she attended and graduated from Rankin High School in 1929. She then attended NYU where she received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in four years. She later did postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
In 1933, she became leader of the United Christian Youth Movement in the New Deal.
It was in this context that her gifts as an orator, organizer and civil rights advocate began to emerge. Perhaps the two most memorable events for many were her work with Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, who had organized the National Council of Negro Women. At Dr. Bethune’s invitation, Height joined the council and worked tirelessly for women’s rights to equal employment, pay and education. She was an articulate voice against lynching and for criminal justice reform. She later became the fourth president of the council and served the organization for 40 years.
The second event that she was instrumental in organizing was the 1963 March on Washington. Working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker and other men, she was the prominent woman in the organizing effort. One might note that she was the only woman seated on the stage with the noted civil rights “Big Six.”
Dorothy Height accomplished much in her life. She was awarded the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award, the Citizen’s Medal from President Ronald Reagan, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, and on her 92nd birthday, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George Bush, which is the highest and most distinguished civilian award presented by the United States Congress.
Truly, Dorothy Irene Height was a woman of greatness and a warrior for justice. Despite facing both racism and patriarchy, she refused to be discouraged or detoured in her quest for a just society. She refused to allow society to define her identity as a woman of color. Instead, she worked to define what a society based on equality and justice should look like.
As we conclude Black History Month and begin Women’s History Month, may the life and work of Dorothy Irene Height inspire us all to be creators of a more perfect union.