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Friday, May 14, 2010

Flying in memory of Dorothy Height

Saturday I realized that I had not paid tribute to Dorothy Height, a leader of the African-American and women’s rights movements who was considered both the grande dame of the civil rights era and its unsung heroine. I knew about her death and cannot explain why I did not write about her. She died on April 20th in Washington. Whether we realize it or not, we owe this woman a huge debt of gratitude. She flew high even when we and many of our ancestors were not paying attention.

She was president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, overseeing a range of programs on issues like voting rights, poverty and in later years AIDS. A longtime executive of the Y.W.C.A., she presided over the integration of its facilities nationwide in the 1940s. With Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and others, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Over the decades, she advised a string of American presidents on civil rights.

Over the years, historians have made much of the so-called “Big Six” who led the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. Ms. Height, the only woman to work regularly alongside them on projects of national significance, was very much the unheralded seventh, the leader who was cropped out, figuratively and often literally, of images of the era.

In 1963, for instance, Ms. Height sat on the platform an arm’s length from Dr. King as he delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. She was one of the march’s chief organizers and a prize-winning orator herself. Yet she was not asked to speak, although many other black leaders — all men — addressed the crowd that day.

Thank you Dorothy Irene Height for doing what you did for all us. You were truly grace under fire. You did what needed to be done even if we did not understand it at the time. May you rest in peace.

We should all buy and read her book “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” (PublicAffairs, 2003; with a foreword by Maya Angelou). I am putting that on my list of what I want for my birthday. Okay, that is selfish. I can go buy it myself. But if anyone is wondering what to get me...

Read more about Dorothy Height at

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