Artist: Mike Dutton/courtesy of Google 2014
THERE IT SITS, the gleaming portrait of Dorothy Height looming radiant and elegant and true, and yet it cannot touch the handiwork of the subject herself. Because Dorothy Height, as the original artist of a highly influential life, rendered the most beautiful cultural through-line of all.
What, for the better part of an American century, did her life not touch — in the name of civil rights and women’s rights and family support and freedoms? So often, when leadership or stewardship or just plain social “glue” was needed to buoy the movements she believed in, Dorothy Height was there.
When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt needed to be lobbied on behalf of civil rights during Harlem protests, she, young Dorothy Height the YWCA worker, was there.
When President Eisenhower needed to be urged to act on school desegregation, she, as a voice of persuasion and firsthand experience, was there.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King spoke about his dream before the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington, she, standing right on the platform of history, was there.
And in 1994, when President Clinton was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she — as recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor — was there.
So is it beyond fitting that when you go to Google’s home page today — on the 102nd anniversary of Dorothy Height’s birth — she is there.
When Ms. Height died four short years ago, President Obama called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.” Height, in the words of Obama, “devoted her life to those struggling for equality . . . witnessing every march and milestone along the way.”
Decade after decade, standing tall and strong and clear-eyed, she was there.
“As president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years,” The Post wrote upon her April 2010 death, “Ms. Height was arguably the most influential woman at the top levels of civil rights leadership.” And when she retired from that post 13 years earlier, Rep. John Lewis, her fellow civil-rights pioneer, said: “At every major effort for social progressive change, Dorothy Height has been there.”
Were she alive, Dorothy Height would likely have deflected today’s spotlight of recognition. She, according to The Post’s Bart Barnes, often told co-workers to “stop worrying about whose name gets in the paper and start doing something about rats, and day care and low wages. . . . We must try to take our task more seriously and ourselves more lightly.”
And yet not to be taken lightly was one’s appearance, because you could not command respect if you did not present with self-respect. It is entirely fitting that Google depicts Ms. Height in a shimmering hat. For as The Post wrote in 2010, in quoting Height: “I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.”
“Dorothy Height deserves credit,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) once said, “for helping black women understand that you had to be feminist at the same time you were African . . . that you had to play more than one role in the empowerment of black people.”
Year after year, she didn’t wait for circumstances to align with her goals and vision. “If the times aren’t ripe,” Height said, “you have to ripen the times.”
Ms. Height had been called an unsung figure of the civil rights movement, yet her voice and her authority and her presence often rang out, whether she was getting her civil-rights start in Depression-era Harlem with the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., or speaking at the Million Man March in 1995.
Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond on this day in 1912, and was raised in Rankin near Pittsburgh. She was class valedictorian and a national contest-winning orator by the time she attended New York University, from which she would get her master’s in educational psychology within four years. She would later become a visiting professor at India’s Delhi School of Social Work.
Ten years ago, on her 92nd birthday, Congress bestowed upon Ms. Height its Gold Medal, the body’s highest honor.
Today, where a slave market once stood, you can go to 633 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in downtown Washington and see the National Council and the Dorothy I. Height Leadership Institute. There, housed in marble and white oak and cast iron, is Ms. Height’s ongoing mission to support African American women.
Dorothy Irene Height died at age 98 at Howard University Hospital in Washington. “She was out there ahead of her time; that’s what made her beautiful,” former president Clinton said at one of the many sendoffs and tribute services. “If ever anyone earned her way, Dorothy Height did.”
[TODAY’S ART: How Mike Dutton made his Dorothy Height Doodle]