Dorothy I. Height, longtime head of the largest black women's organization and an influenctial civil rights figures, died on April 20 at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. at 98.
Born in Richmond, Va., on 24 March 1912, Height began her career as a staff member for the Harlem Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1937. She rose to the staff of the national YWCA board in 1944 and, over the years of her tenure, organized interracial and ecumenical educational and leadership programs, and headed the organization’s Center for Racial Justice. She retired from the YWCA in 1975.
Additionally, from 1957 until 1997, Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an unbrella group of black women's organization that was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. During the era of major civil rights protests, she was the only female member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (the so-called Big Six).
Dorothy Cotton, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Director of Education and its highest ranking woman during the 1960s, remembers Height as “a star in the YWCA world and a person we all looked up to. She always had something unique, different and penetrating to say. She kept on giving of her energy and her incomparable way of looking at issues and bringing in different paradigms. She did it with style and never rested on her laurels.”
Height recalled meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was a fifteen-year-old student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. She was a house guest of one of King’s mentors, Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays, and recalled: “At dinner Dr. Mays asked whether Martin had made up his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. It was fascinating to hear this extraordinary young man talk. He was considering law, medicine, and the ministry, and he spoke about his choices with a special kind of youthful maturity, a seriousness that shone through.”
Height protested the treatment of women in the civil rights movement. She remembered that following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, women were seated on the platform during the event’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial but were not invited to speak. Height bristled that “the blatantly insensitive treatment of black women leaders was a new awakening." She and other black women activists began to sense their importance in black communities. "They are the backbone of the churches," Height wrote. "The evidence of their work can be seen everywhere. It made us sit up and think in new and different ways.”
Cotton observed that leaders, such as Height, who focused their skills and time on women’s organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women and YWCA have been sidelined by history. She blames “the ignoring of women and the role they played” as the reason that Height is not as familiar as many of her male colleagues in the freedom struggle.
President Barack Obama issued a statement on Height’s death, calling her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans.”