If you look at the 1963 press photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., you might notice a woman standing off to his left. She is one of the few women on the platform with him. Her name is Dorothy Height.
Known for being an activist and educator, Dorothy Height dedicated her life to campaigning for racial and gender equality for all women, and African-American women in particular. Dorothy became a legend in her own time.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1912, Dorothy’s parents moved when she was five years old to a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This event enabled Dorothy to attend racially integrated schools. Gifted with a talent for oratory, she become socially and politically active by her high school years. With encouragement from her parents and teachers, she entered numerous oratorical competitions. In her senior year, she won an Elks sponsored oratory on the national level.
With this national recognition, came a $1,000 stipend to attend Barnard College in New York. However, before Dorothy arrived for admission, the college informed her that they had already filled their yearly quota for a few black students. Undeterred, she applied instead to New York University in Manhattan and earned an undergraduate degree in education, combined with a Master’s Degree in Psychology in 1932.
After college, she became a caseworker for the New York Department of Welfare, where she saw first-hand the struggles of women trying to gain support for their families. During her time with the Welfare Department, she met Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder, and president of the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune became her mentor, and the two women remained friends for over eighteen years until Bethune’s death.
Following her work with the Welfare Department, Dorothy joined the staff of the YWCA in Harlem, New York. There, she worked tirelessly to integrate YWCA facilities.
I am embarrassed to admit that I never even knew the Y was segregated.
In 1946 when she was the National Interracial Education Secretary for the National YWCA, the organization finally did integrate all its facilities.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dorothy never wavered in her quest for social justice and worked with every major civil rights leader of the period, even though the press largely ignored her. In 1955 she became the fourth president of the National Council of Negro Women and held that position for forty years. In 1965, Dorothy became the first director of the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until her retirement from the organization in 1977.
And, back in 1963, she helped to organize the March on Washington, which is why she was present on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing a crowd of 250,000 people, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dorothy Height was a remarkable woman in that she never gave up her dream of helping other women. She shared her goals with American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, and she discussed her views with other action-oriented women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan.
Dorothy Height died at the age of 90 in Washington D.C., after having been bestowed with multiple honors, including prestigious awards from Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
A recipient of both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dorothy was hailed by President Barack Obama as the ‘godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.’ Today there is a U.S. Postal Stamp issued in her honor.
Look at the stamp, and you will see compassion etched on her face and evidence of her love of hats.
Dorothy Height, a strong woman worthy of remembrance. Thank you to Jackson Blumenthal who asked me if I knew about Dorothy Height. That question led to this month’s blog.
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