Written by: Morgan Franklin
“We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed.” – Dorothy Irene Height
This weekend and throughout next week, as thousands gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the leaders and participants of the original gathering in 1963 will be lauded for their progressive ideals and commended for their commitment to social justice.
While most will remember the names of the stand out organizers and speakers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or A. Phillip Randolph, many will overlook heroes of the day who took their places outside of the spotlight, not only during the march, but often throughout the course of the movement.
One woman whose dynamic leadership ability, tested work ethic and unceasing desire for equality helped to bend the arc of our society towards a better condition is Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. Pictured in this photograph just beyond Dr. King on the day of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Height’s purposeful life and reaching legacy are true testaments to the critical role she played within the movement and within the history of America’s journey toward greater equality and inclusivity for our citizens at large.
Born on March 24, 1912 to James and Fannie Height, a contractor and a nurse, respectively, Dorothy and her family moved from Richmond, Va. to Rankin, Pa shortly after her birth. As a child who suffered from severe asthma, she was not expected to live past sixteen. Instead, she not only survived into her adolescence, but thrived, volunteering for both the securing of hate crime legislation and for voting rights equality.
Additionally, as a young woman she was a skilled orator, competing in tournaments and even winning a four year college scholarship. In spite of all of her success she still faced those who sought to limit her due to her double marginalization as an African American woman. Though she was brilliant, deserving and had been accepted to attend, Barnard College turned her away in the year of her acceptance because it had already met its racial quota of two black students. Refusing to be stopped, she caught the train to nearby NYU and spent the next several years earning not only a bachelor’s but also a master’s degree.
Dr. Height began her professional career in New York as a social worker and moved to work with the YWCA in Harlem towards the end of the 1930’s. It was in this capacity that Dorothy Height first had a platform to combine her natural talent for public speaking and persuasion with her will to advance the public good by seeking to cast a light on the degradation and exploitation of black women working as domestic laborers.
Also during this time in her life Dr. Height was introduced to Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Not only would Bethune become her mentor; Height would eventually rise in the ranks of the Council and serve as President of the Organization from 1957-1997.
Additionally, Dr. Height founded the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice and, as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, she served as the Sorority’s 10th National President beginning in 1947 and propelled the organization to new levels of success. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and saw great success with the programs she instituted for the several organizations that she oversaw.
Dr. Height worked regularly on national civil right imperatives with the “Big 6” and was instrumental to developing the issues that were taken on and making sure that often silenced concerns were brought to the table. While she was a lead organizer of the March on Washington and sat on the platform during Dr. King’s speech, she, as well as other women who were instrumental in the movement, were marginalized by the male leading figures.
In spite of this exclusion, according to Dr. Height, she and other women in the movement held a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia following the March called, “After the March, What?”. The conversations facilitated in that meeting led to a coalition of women being prepared for an initiative that began in 1964 called, “Wednesdays in Mississippi”. This groundbreaking program allowed for women of different races and faiths to travel across the state of Mississippi, learn from what was happening in Freedom Schools and develop meaningful relationships.
Though Dr. Height passed away in April of 2010, it is clear that her impact on the way rights are championed and our pursuit for justice has not waned. With a career in social justice and civil rights that spanned over eighty years, from anti-lynching legislation to the inauguration of America’s first African American president and beyond, Dr. Height’s work changed the outlook of American politics. At the time of her death, President Obama acknowledged the sheer magnitude of her importance in the movement calling her the “godmother of the civil rights movement.”
Though Dr. Height was often undervalued and taken out of images of the civil rights movement due to her gender and from the women’s rights movement due to her race, during this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington her significance in the evolution of American life can be neither erased nor ignored.