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Dorothy I. Height: A Constant Rebel

by Althea Legal-Miller
Doctoral Candidate, King’s College London

On April 20, 2010, Dorothy Irene Height died at the age of ninety-eight. She was a pioneer and architect of numerous civil rights movement organizations that ranged from anti-lynching campaigns to HIV/AIDS awareness. A little over a year before her passing, I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of her last oral history interview. I was thirty-three, she was ninety-seven, but Dr. Height rarely passed on an opportunity to educate the younger generation, which by then was practically everyone with whom she came into contact. The brilliance of Dr. Height was in part shaped by her life-long practice of cultivating intergenerational relationships and coalitions. In her twenties, she kept counsel with Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marcus Garvey, to name a few of her social justice mentors. Dr. Height, who helped build the blocks of the modern civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled first meeting him when he was only fifteen. And until shortly before her passing, Dr. Height was an active advisor to President Barack Obama and his administration. Her enthusiasm and passion for service never failed, which was evident by the fact that as Chair and President Emerita of NCNW – the position she held after retiring as the organization’s fourth elected president in 1998 – she continued to go to work every day at their national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Listen to an Interview Extract

In this extract, Dorothy Height explains why African American women who participated in the civil rights movement did not feel powerless to take action against police sexual abuses. Height briefly describes women’s civil rights organizing in Mississippi, and notes that she, Coretta Scott King, and Juanita Jones Abernathy were often the only women who regularly shared mass meeting platforms with the “six men in the civil rights leadership,” despite predominately female audiences. The extract concludes with Height sharing a civil rights era story that took place at a train station in North Carolina, where a police officer threatened to shoot her in the head if she did not go into the colored waiting room. Height uses this story to illustrate gendered participation within the movement.
(Track Length: 8:30)

Listen to Dorothy Height

I met Dr. Height twice. Our first meeting was on her ninety-sixth birthday at NCNW headquarters. As was customary on such a special occasion, the office closed down for the afternoon to throw Dr. Height a party. The spacious white marble lobby was transformed into an informal seated reception, catered by Dr. Height’s favorite soul food eatery in southeast D.C. Flower baskets from celebrities including Bill Cosby adorned the space, and served as a complement to the buzz about Dr. Height’s impending trip to Maya Angelou’s 80th birthday party, organized by Oprah Winfrey. But as the scent of celebrity faded throughout the afternoon, this gathering was, at its heart, an opportunity for everybody to express their genuine love for a woman who gave so much of herself.

Like many guests at the party, I waited in line for a photo-opportunity with Dr. Height, who was decked out in her iconic accessory – the hat. The line moved slowly, but I was pleased to notice how Dr. Height engaged every guest she greeted in conversation. Eventually I made it to the front, and was introduced by Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever – the current Executive Director of NCNW – as the young scholar from England working on a PhD project about black girls and the modern civil rights movement. To my surprise, Dr. Height expressed delight, becoming ever more animated as she explained why black girls were, as she put it, the “backbone” of the civil rights movement. I listened hypnotically, not quite able to fathom the privilege of my spontaneous first-hand history lesson. After our brief discussion, I departed with Dr. Height’s assurance that she would be more than happy to assist me in the development of my research project. It was an offer I could not refuse.

In 2009, a year after our first meeting, I interviewed Dr. Height as part of my doctoral study. Our conversation covered only a wafer thin slice of her human rights career, which she recalled with stunning clarity. In 1963, Dr. Height assembled a small interracial team of women to assist the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers based in Selma, Alabama, in investigating charges of jailhouse sexual abuses and mistreatment against local black girls who had been incarcerated for participating in nonviolent demonstrations. The intelligence she gathered in Selma marked the beginning of Dr. Height’s courageous efforts to prevent jailhouse sexual abuses against female civil rights workers. Dr. Height adamantly believed that women had to take the lead in this anti-sexual violence struggle, which she argued had to be prioritized with the goals of obtaining voting rights and desegregating public accommodations. Consequenty, Dr. Height built an interracial, interfaith, and interorganizational female coalition to act on findings of jailhouse sexual abuses in the 1960s. During our interview, she expressed why African American women had been at the forefront of such radical organizing, despite the risks: “We’re women who seldom do what we want to do, but we always do what we have to do. …We believe in getting things done. …We had … suffered, and we understood the issues and we believed that we could make a change if we worked at it.” This statement by Dr. Height was no simple reiteration of the strong black matriarch thesis, but an analysis of how the everyday lived experiences of African American women had reshaped and redefined civil rights work and priorities.

Dr. Height’s legacy provides us all with a critical window into almost a century of human struggles that have engendered critical changes and transformations in America. My conversations with Dr. Height remind me that the memories of those who have fought for social justice are politically potent; they invite us to not only reckon with the past, but also reconsider the future. Simply put, it was my great fortune to meet such a constant rebel.

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