This February 2017, in the midst of the all of the social and political upheaval taking place in the world, I feel there is no better time than to pay homage to the brave and unfaltering Black women who, against all odds, fought (sometimes to the death) to make a better reality for me. Because of them, I know and understand my value and worth. Because of them, I had and have access to education and opportunity for advancement. Because of them, I am free to pursue my dreams. Because of them, I am able to speak and be heard without fear. And while I understand there is still far to go in the struggle for true equality for all in every land across the globe, I am ever encouraged by their courageous actions and voices to do my part.
“Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reaching his goals.” – Dorothy Height (1912-2010)
We just recently lost the great civil/women’s rights activist and educator Dorothy Irene Height in 2010. Dubbed the “godmother of the Civil Rights Movement” by President Barack Obama, Ms. Height should be as much of household name as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She too was blessed with outstanding oratory, leadership and organization skills and was much of contributor and guide to the success of the Civil Rights Movement as any of the “Big Six” (Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, James Farmer, Whitney Young) we ordinarily associate with it. However, because of her gender, she was often ignored and snubbed (and frankly underappreciated) by her male counterparts and the media.
It was Ms. Height who directed the integration of all the YWCA centers in 1946. It was Ms. Height who established YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice in 1965. It was Ms. Height who was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. It was Ms. Height who helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus along with Shirley Chisolm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. And finally, it was Ms. Height who organized the long-running, annual Black Family Reunion in 1986—which still takes place to this day.
Ms. Height graduated from New York University with undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Educational Psychology before working as a caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department. At only 25, she began a lifetime of activism with the National Council of Negro Women (where she later became president) and she fought for equal rights on behalf of both African Americans and women. During the 1960s, this busy woman coordinated voter registration efforts in the South and educated voters in the North. She helped set up scholarship programs for student civil rights workers and helped the National Council of Negro Women secure grants to assist female entrepreneurs with vocational training and business establishment. She also, of course, joined the national staff of the YWCA. And as a member of Delta Sigma Theta, she developed leadership training and educational programs and was national president of the sorority for 9 years.
Even on in to the 1990’s, Ms. Height was still active in rallying the Black community to empower youth in combatting drug use, illiteracy and unemployment. She continued to provide women’s issues-oriented local, state and federal government committees with social services expertise and was able to secure funding for national headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women in Washington D.C. She didn’t retire until 1996 when she was 84 years old.
For her longstanding and exemplary service, she was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.