In 1936 she marched through Times Square shouting, “Stop the lynchings!” In 1963 she sat on stage before the largest crowd yet assembled in Washington, D.C., as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ringing “I have a dream” speech. And in 1998, 86-year-old Dorothy Height still leaves others in the dust. “Get me [Sen.] Carol Moseley-Braun,” she commanded scurrying staffers one afternoon last month at the Washington headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, a federation of 250 community organizations she led for 41 years before becoming president emerita in February. “Now what did I do with the number for Cicely Tyson?”
Height uses a wheelchair to ease fatigued legs, but appeared elegant in a white straw hat and a triple strand of pearls as she prepared for a busy week. There was a party for the annual Black Family Reunion Celebration, a prayer breakfast, an AIDS conference and a press event for a lawsuit to let D.C. residents elect representatives to Congress. And, oh, yes, there was that little gala in her honor: On Sept. 15, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Jessye Norman, among others, gathered at the Grand Hyatt Washington for a black-tie tribute to the woman the First Lady called “our hero, leader, role model” and Jesse Jackson declares “a living legend.”
Compared to King and the other charismatic personalities at the center of the 1960s civil rights struggle, Height has gotten little recognition, an oversight her many admirers deplore. “She was there every step of the way,” says Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), who as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was one of the era’s defining figures. Even today, “her work is her life,” says Height’s grandniece Dana Randolph, 36. “She never sleeps.”
One reason for the soft-spoken Height’s relative obscurity may be her disarming lack of ego. “If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don’t get much work done,” she says. Lewis suggests another factor: “The leadership of the civil rights movement was very chauvinistic”—and Height, representing NCNW, was often the sole woman at meetings of the movement’s “Big Six” organizations. In fact, the other leaders rebuffed Height’s suggestion that a woman speak at the rally where King made his most famous speech. “The only female voice heard at the march,” she points out, “was that of Mahalia Jackson.”
Height’s “great contribution,” says James Farmer, former leader of the Congress for Racial Equality, another Big Six group, was to join people in the women’s movement to the civil rights movement. In 1964, for example, Height came up with something she called Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMs): Northern female activists made flights south to spend Wednesdays in small towns, holding meetings to build bridges between local black and white women. WIMs were not always welcome: In Hattiesburg, Miss., a Molotov cocktail sailed through the window of a church one group was visiting. (The bomb fizzled.) “We knew we were taking a great risk, but we had to work within the system to change the system,” Height says.
After the movement’s hard-won victories of the mid-’60s, Height turned to initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty among southern blacks: home-ownership programs, child-care centers, even a literal piggy bank in which poor families were given Yorkshire pigs in return for a pledge to donate two piglets from every litter back to the program. “I thought if they had a pig in their backyard, no one could push them around,” says Height.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Height and the NCNW embraced such issues as AIDS education and the Black Family Reunion—annual festivals in nine cities celebrating traditional African-American values. Throughout, Height has been friend and mentor to anyone who sought her help. Labor secretary Alexis Herman says Height was her “spiritual counsel” during her 1997 confirmation hearings. “There isn’t a career move I’ve made without her advice,” she says. “She taught me what it means to live a life of service.”
Height’s own life of service began in Rankin, Pa., near Pittsburgh, where the older daughter of a building contractor and a nurse attended integrated schools and taught Bible stories to white children at a nearby church. She first encountered bigotry at age 9: Her best friend, a white girl, told her, “I can’t play with you anymore because you’re a n——r.”
Height took refuge in her studies. In high school her impassioned speech about the “slavery amendments” to the Constitution won a national Elks Club oratorical contest and an all-expenses-paid scholarship to the college of her choice. She was accepted at Barnard, but when she arrived in New York City, college officials told her their quota of two blacks was filled. She enrolled at New York University instead, earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a masters in educational psychology.
As a young welfare caseworker, Height volunteered in Christian activist groups and in 1937 took a job as assistant director of the Harlem YWCA. There she met Mary McLeod Bethune, the NCNW’s charismatic founder. Height recalls that as she was escorting Eleanor Roosevelt into a meeting, Bethune called to her, saying, “Come back. We need you.”
“It was almost the hand of God,” Height says of the moment. While continuing to work with the YWCA—she served on its staff until 1977 and founded its Center for Racial Justice—she signed on with Bethune, from whom she says she learned “the value of collaboration and of building political coalitions.” In 1957 she took over as head of the NCNW.
Height, who never married, could paper with honorary degrees the Washington apartment she shares with friend Robert Hall, a widower. A safe holds her 1994 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Her legacy? “I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom,” she says. “I want to be remembered as one who tried.”
Rochelle Jones in Washington, D.C.