Dorothy Height's name is unknown to most Americans. Yet her death last week at the age of 98 spawned tributes worthy of a saint. President Barack Obama proclaimed her "the godmother of the civil-rights movement." Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization that Height chaired for 15 years, declared her "the founding mother of the new American republic."
Obama noted that she led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and "served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil-rights movement—witnessing every march and milestone along the way." That statement, however, only begins to capture her importance. "She came along at a time," recalls Henderson, "when women were not accepted as leaders." That was clearly on display at the demonstration—the 1963 March on Washington—that gave Martin Luther King Jr. his most memorable moment. As King poetically sketched his American dream, Height shared the platform, but not the limelight. Women could sing—the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson did so gloriously, as did Marian Anderson, the equally great contralto. But the speaking parts were restricted to men.
John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, was then the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He shared the podium with King that August day. Asked why Height could not speak, Lewis recalls that the leaders of the march did not think of the National Council of Negro Women as a traditional civil-rights organization. But the real reason, he acknowledges, was "male chauvinism."
Height's fierce, yet soft-spoken, presence eventually wore down that chauvinism. She was "tireless," re-calls Lewis. She was also more of a visionary than she is generally given credit for. Height saw—much more clearly than most of the men around her—that the civil-rights movement had to evolve, that a crusade for equality that refused to treat women as equals would inevitably stumble over its own gigantic contradiction. So she became, in Lewis's words, "a spokesperson for women's rights long before there was a modern women's movement." And, says Henderson, she "created space on the civil-rights platter for women and issues related to women." She did so with style and class, always (with her ever-present hats and gloves) maintaining the appearance of a lady from the era of refinement.
The battle for women to be treated seriously was one she never gave up. In 1994, when she succeeded then–NAACP head Benjamin Hooks (who died April 15) as chair of the Leadership Conference, she got wind of the fact that some men did not think she belonged in the post. Rather than confront the men head-on, she quietly made a few calls. In short order, legions of women responded as one, making the point to those throughout the Leadership Conference hierarchy that Dorothy Height was not to be trifled with. Henderson, who had recently become CEO of the organization, recalls one of Height's fans indignantly bellowing into the phone, "She's our mother."
Height was just as effective in her work on behalf of other women she thought were in need of a champion. She was a key backer of Alexis Herman, who served as Bill Clinton's secretary of labor, strongly and successfully lobbying then–Senate majority leader Trent Lott to get the nomination through.
The world that we live in today is, of course, very different from the one in which Height came of age. It's inconceivable to imagine that any university would treat a young woman as callously as Barnard did in 1929, when it withdrew her admittance because it already had its quota of two black students. Today's Barnard would be glad to claim her—as it did in 2004, naming her an honorary alumna. In accepting the honor, Height expressed her appreciation, and added, "Something that could have hurt forever has been removed."
That hurt, which she carried for some 75 years, was never a source of complaint. Instead, it seems to have motivated her to push down barriers for those who would come after her, those who would dream of an America where even the presidency could not forever be reserved for those who were male and white.