Civil Rights Legend Tells Her Story

Dorothy Height’s Memoir Recounts Her Lifetime of Work for Equality

Posted February 23, 2004 at 2:05pm

For Dorothy Height, a lifetime civil rights activist, author and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, the fight for civil rights is never over.

“In my work I have discovered that there is a real difference in having a job, having a position, or having a life’s work,” Height said, sitting behind her desk at the National Council of Negro Women. “For me, working to eliminate poverty, racism and sexism has been my life’s work.”

At 91, Height is touring the country to speak about “Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” her memoir which was published in June 2003. She will be speaking and signing her book at 11 a.m. today at the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress.

Height, who still comes to work everyday at the National Council of Negro Women at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, lives right down the street. Today she continues to work on issues such as housing for low-income families and the disparities that minorities and women face in health care and education.

Height said she has attended every major civil rights event in America’s history.

She was on the platform with Martin Luther King Jr. during his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Height said she was disappointed that no one representing women spoke during the March on Washington.

“After the march we held a meeting of women [on] equality,” Height said, clad in a gray suit, flowered blouse and navy blue velvet hat complete with a pale-blue rose. “We discussed that there would never be another instance where women were not included.”

Height has also served as the only female member of the Civil Rights Leadership, which included members such as King and James Farmer. In this capacity, she has advised every president since Dwight Eisenhower on women’s issues.

Her office at the National Council of Negro Women is a testament to her life’s work. Awards, plaques and photographs of Height with various dignitaries cover the walls and desks. Framed awards lean against each other, unable to fit on the walls.

Her awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which then-President Bill Clinton presented. A photo of Clinton and Height sits behind her desk.

On March 24, Height’s 92nd birthday, she will add the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award from the U.S. government, to the more than 50 awards and honors she has received from local, state and national organizations and the federal government.

Height’s Storied Life

Height said her desire to help others and to advance the cause of civil rights in America began early in life.

“My parents were always very active in the church and community,” Height said. “I grew up in a family where participation and service were greatly stressed. In my high school days I participated in activities that encouraged me to debate and to express myself.”

Height was born in Richmond, Va., but her family moved when she was 4 to a neighborhood in Rankin, Pa., where whites and blacks lived together. A large portion of the population also included white European immigrants.

Height had a unique experience because her public schools in Pennsylvania were not segregated, allowing her the opportunity to interact with individuals from many different backgrounds.

“She finds the common denominators that can link people of diverse backgrounds and agendas together,” said Joel Brokaw, Height’s agent who has also worked for Bill and Camille Cosby for 23 years. “She has also taught me how you can be tough and gentle at the same time — qualities of a true spiritual warrior. She is passionate and is always excited about learning something new every day.”

Entering high school at the beginning of the Great Depression, Height had to use her debating skills and ingenuity to attend New York University.

“I entered an oratorical contest on the Constitution of the United States and won my college education on [a speech on] the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments,” Height said.

To this day, Height maintains an interest in the Constitution.

“My interest in civil rights got started during my youth,” she said. “I worked against the poll tax and chain gangs. I have continued to study the Constitution.”

Kate Darnton, senior editor of Public Affairs, the company which published Height’s book, said the story of Height’s high school debate was inspirational. Darnton edited the book after Merrill McLoughlin, the writer who worked on portions of the book with Height, had finished.

“She’s an amazing person,” Darnton said of Height. “She has a such a commanding presence. She’s like a queen. It was an honor to do her book.”

Pulling the Book Together

Height’s long, full life did pose some difficulties for the editing team working on her book.

“She had been working on the book for years,” Darnton said. “It hadn’t happened. We met with her and reinvigorated the process. Clearly, she had an important story to tell.”

The problem, in some cases, was narrowing Height’s story down to a reasonable length for a book.

“Our biggest challenge was removing extraneous detail,” Darnton said. “The most difficult part of the book was getting Dr. Height to focus on the key moments of her life.”

Brokaw helped Height to get to the point of publishing her book.

“I realized when I first started working with Dr. Height that her important contributions to her country were largely unknown to the vast majority,” Brokaw said. “I though a book would be the most powerful vehicle to help fill in these blank pages in our history books.”

Peter Osnos, the publisher of Public Affairs, also noted Height’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement.

“I think the most important thing is that Dr. Height lived the full arc of the civil rights movement,” Osnos said. “She was the only woman at the leadership level in the ’40s. When it came to organization Height had the longest, most enduring role.”

For example, Height describes the passage relating to 1964 and 1954, two of the biggest years of her life. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law. In 1954, in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities for blacks and whites were illegal.

In response, Height and Polly Cowan created “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a weekly mixing of white and black women from the North and South. Through “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” Height and others hoped to increase their understanding of the world around them and ease integration.

As part of “Wednesdays in Mississippi” Height took interracial teams into Mississippi schools. Height said they chose Mississippi because there was a great deal of resistance to integration in the state.

“We went every Wednesday over the summer,” she said. “It was important because that summer the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into effect.”

In light of her accomplishments, Height offered some advice to today’s youth.

“I think that people need to learn to rise above the personal to the social,” Height said. “They need to make sure privileges are evenly distributed to all.”