The undaunted Dorothy Height

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

UPON HER DEATH Tuesday, Dorothy I. Height was hailed a hero, the grande dame of the civil rights movement, an icon. She was all of those things. Yet somehow words fail to capture what was so remarkable about this woman who fought for so long, and with such tenacity, dignity and resolve, for racial justice and gender equality. Because she lived such a full life, an entire generation grew up knowing her without fully understanding the entrenched unfairness she fought against and helped to lessen. To appreciate Dorothy Height is to understand the slights she endured and the obstacles she encountered both as an African American and as a woman, and how they only spurred her life-long campaign for justice.

Ms. Height died at the age of 98 on Tuesday morning at Howard University Hospital. President Obama eulogized her as "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans." Her activism dates to the 1930s, and she played an influential, if largely unsung role, in the civil rights movement that transformed America in the 1950s and 1960s. Even though she presided over the National Council of Negro Women, a group she would head for 40 years until 1997, Ms. Height and her work often went unnoticed and unpraised. She was seated on the platform with Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his "I have a dream speech" at the Lincoln Memorial, but she would later express dismay that no one gave voice to women's rights.

Such experiences enabled her to see the injustices against women and African Americans as part of the same set of American problems that needed to be addressed jointly, and not as separate -- or even conflicting -- concerns. And, just as she had to fight against being marginalized in the civil rights movement because of her gender, so she had to push back against being marginalized in the feminist movement because of her race. She did so not with anger or bitterness but with determined grace. She spoke of this during a book signing at the Library of Congress in 2004: "I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I've had all of that, but I've also learned that getting bitter is not the way."

Ms. Height never gave up the fight. Even as her age advanced, she continued to advocate for black families, preach self-reliance and despair over the lack of voting rights for the District. Recently, when she thought a worthy tennis program for children was threatened, she put her prestige on the line. Just as words can't fully capture her, so they fail to describe the void left by her death.

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