Dorothy Height: Unsung Hero of the Women’s Movement and Civil Rights

by Erika Stump

Photo credit: David Kohl, AP

Dorothy Irene Height died on April 20, 2010.  She was 98.  Although not a common household name like her dear friend, Rosa Parks, Ms. Height was a fundamental force of the civil rights movement and an icon in the struggle for women’s rights. Not to mention her role as an impeccable model of style…oh, those hats!

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, Ms. Height’s displeasure with racial inequality began early in her life. The Pittsburgh YWCA refused to let her swim in their pool when she was a child.  Then, at nine years old, a white girl said they could no longer be best friends because Dorothy was black. As a young adult, Height was admitted to Barnard College, but when she arrived, she was told she could not enroll as the two seats for black students had already been filled.  Given her renowned resilience, she immediately hopped on a subway and registered at NYU, where she earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in five years.

Height’s ability to inspire and lead earned her many powerful positions and accolades.  However, she was often one of the unheralded contributors in important events. She worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the only woman on the United Civil Rights Leadership Team, helped organize the 1960 March in Washington, and proofread Marcus Garvey’s  newspaper, The Negro World.  Height certainly earned some much-deserved recognition in her life, including honorary alumna status at Barnard College in 2004, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1994, and many other awards.  Height’s acclaim was never more important to her than her work, though; she told People in 1998, “If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don’t get much work done.”

Height’s humility regarding the public’s appreciation of her tremendous accomplishments is admirable, but it does not justify her absence in the annals of American History.  Why isn’t she in every history textbook or even mentioned in many college African American history courses?  Undoubtedly, there are numerous unsung heroes of history that stand behind the great orators, as Dorothy Height literally stood behind Dr. King during his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. In a 1997 interview with the Associated Press, Height revealed her sharp character when commenting on the speech, “He spoke longer than he was supposed to speak.” She was clearly not just a member of the supporting cast but a strong woman making valuable contributions to the great moments of our nation.  As teachers, students, and citizens of the United States, it is indeed these significant members of our society that must be recognized for their work to overcome racism, sexism as well as the fundamental struggles of poverty, homelessness, and health.

Maybe her lack of notoriety was due to the fact that her audiences were often those most marginalized by society, such as women and impoverished communities.  During Height’s 41-year tenure as President of the National Council of Negro Women, she developed a successful “pig bank” to assist impoverished families in rural Mississippi, giving numerous households their own pig. Height explained in her interview in People, “I thought if they had a pig in their backyard, no one could push them around.”  This work also included developing community freezers and showers.  These were the basics of living that she knew developed strong people and strong cultures.  She dedicated her life to not only improving the lives of black American men and women, but also to developing numerous opportunities for collaboration of all races. Her 1964 grassroots effort known as “Wednesdays in Mississippi” is one such example. These meetings brought together women from various economic, social and racial groups/backgrounds to develop fair housing opportunities for families in Mississippi.  She later extended her work internationally.  In 1975, Height served as a member of a tribunal at the International Women’s Year Conference of the United Nations in Mexico City.

Amidst Dorothy Height’s ground-level efforts to fight for basic human rights, she maintained her sense of personal style as a beacon of hope and possibility.  She was a true lady.  Her fantastic suits and Sunday hats boldly stood out even at the most conservative political events.  “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.”

So, as we dust off our wide-brimmed hats to honor Dorothy Height, let us remember and recognize her endless work to do what Dr. King asked of us: “make America what it ought to be…to make America a better nation.” Our first step must be to celebrate, publicly and internally, the work of so many people behind the scenes of greatness. Then we must continue their work, because in the words of Ms. Dorothy Height, “We have come a long way, but too many people are not better off.” ▢

Erika (Kika) Stump is a freelance writer and teaches writing at Central Maine Community College.  She earned her BA in English at Wesleyan University.

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6 thoughts on “Dorothy Height: Unsung Hero of the Women’s Movement and Civil Rights

  1. Thank you for writing this piece. Always good to be reminded of how many people work to bring change in the world, with or without recognition for their work. Wish I had heard more about her during her lifetime.

  2. Erika, it was a pleasure to read the article you wrote on Dorothy Irene Height. The facts you revealed were interesting and I did giggle a few times! Nicely done.

  3. Thank you for articulating this important piece of history, and illuminating Ms. Height’s significant contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.

  4. Your insights about Dorothy Height have come back to mind as I have been thinking about the injustices which Shirley Sherrod has endured. I agree with you. Celebrating the integrity and courage of women needs to be encouraged by us all.

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